Column: Requiring Trump’s tax returns under California election law is just plain petty politics

President Trump walks down the steps of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland in April, 2019.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

Gov. Jerry Brown was right. His successor Gavin Newsom isn’t — at least about whether a state should be allowed to dictate qualifications for a presidential candidate.

States should butt out and defer to the U.S. Constitution. It spells out simple criteria that have worked for 232 years: A president must be a natural-born citizen — meaning born a U.S. citizen — have lived in the country 14 years and be at least 35.

California’s Democrat-controlled state Legislature passed a spiteful “gotcha” bill last month that was clearly meant to punch Republican President Trump in the nose. It decrees that unless a presidential contender publicly releases five years of federal income tax returns, the candidate can’t run on the state’s primary election ballot.

Newsom gleefully signed it.

“I agree with the Legislature that ‘the State of California has a strong interest in ensuring that its voters make informed, educated choices in the voting booth,’” he wrote in his signing message. “As one of the largest economies in the world and home to one in nine Americans eligible to vote, California has a special responsibility to require this information of presidential and gubernatorial candidates.”


The new law also requires candidates for governor to disclose their taxes, as Newsom did when he ran in 2018.

“States have a legal and moral duty,” Newsom continued, “to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards and restore public confidence.”


States have only one responsibility: to hold honest elections so citizens — regardless of their party — can vote for the presidential candidate they desire.

In this case, California’s nearly 5 million registered Republicans shouldn’t have to put up with ruling Democrats barring their president from the March 3 primary election ballot.

Two years ago, the Legislature passed a similar bill despite a warning by its legal counsel that the measure was unconstitutional. Brown vetoed the bill.

Some perspective about Brown:

When he ran for president in 1992, he refused to release his taxes. Same thing when he ran for governor in 2010 and 2014. (Of course, fellow Democrats never squawked about that.) So, naturally, Brown vetoed the 2017 bill, even though it didn’t require disclosure of a gubernatorial candidate’s taxes.


That aside, Brown’s veto message was straight on target.

“While I recognize the political attractiveness — even the merits — of getting President Trump’s tax returns,” Brown wrote, “I worry about the political perils of individual states seeking to regulate presidential elections in this matter.

“First, it may not be constitutional.

“Second, it sets a ‘slippery slope’ precedent. Today we require tax returns, but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”


If we’re going to demand tax returns, how about a document arguably even more important for a president, especially Trump: a psychiatric report? Shouldn’t we insist on knowing a candidate’s mental state?

That’s unwarranted, too, at least for this president. He signals his mental state daily with tweets.

Newsom said in his signing message: “The disclosure required by this bill will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing or influence from domestic and foreign business interests.”

But such information already is publicly available. That’s because a post-Watergate law requires the president and members of Congress — and candidates for those offices — to annually disclose details of their personal finances. There’s a similar requirement for governors and legislators.

OK, those reports aren’t nearly as detailed as they should be. So require more information.


Democrats repeatedly stress that every president since Richard Nixon — except Gerald Ford and Trump — have released their income tax returns. (Ford supplied a summary.) But those releases were voluntary. No state threatened to bar a candidate from its ballot.

Actually, voters already know one vital piece of information about Trump’s taxes: He refuses to share the numbers with them. If people don’t like that, they can vote against him. But, come on, voters already have ample reason to reject this guy, starting with his uncivil behavior.

Let’s be honest: The governor’s and the Legislature’s actions were merely gratuitous partisan provocations against a president who is highly unpopular in deep-blue California. Democrats were smacking their favorite piñata.

And the Legislature was hypocritical. If tax returns are so vital for voters’ decision-making, why don’t the lawmakers require them for all candidates running for any partisan office in California, including the Legislature? Guess that’s too much reform.

Democrats argue a state has the constitutional authority to regulate presidential elections. But that relates to election procedures, not candidate qualifications.

If the law withstands lawsuits — which is doubtful — it won’t hurt Trump. He’d still be on the general election ballot in November, assuming he’s renominated. And the GOP presumably could amend its bylaws to commit California’s delegates to Trump at the party’s national convention.


The real impact could be the Democrats’ suppression of Republican votes in the primary election. Without Trump on the ballot, Republicans might not be inspired to turn out — unless the Democrats’ ploy backfires and Republicans vote en masse out of anger.

Several suits have been filed by the Trump campaign and Republican Party challenging the bill’s constitutionality.

Hopefully some court will reject this petty politics.