Opinion: Audit? No, Trump hides tax returns as a political calculation

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during Monday night's debate.
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during Monday night’s debate.
(Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty Images)

About those tax returns.

We heard yet again during Monday’s presidential debate that Donald Trump can’t release his tax returns because he is under audit by the Internal Revenue Service. Actually, in Trump’s words, “I’ve been under audit almost for 15 years. … in a way, I should be complaining. I’m not even complaining. I don’t mind it. It’s almost become a way of life.”

One would hope the IRS audits rich people who brag about not paying income taxes — “That makes me smart,” Trump said during the debate, not realizing he had just stepped into a trap neatly set by Hillary Clinton.

Clinton, of course, speculated that Trump’s refusal to release the tax returns means he’s trying to hide something. A reasonable voter would think so, too, especially since the IRS has said there is nothing about the audit process that precludes Trump from releasing his tax returns.


I don’t think you want to talk about 15,000 people asking about $500 fees and bringing up questions that take away from the dialogue.

— Donald Trump Jr.

So why does Trump stick with the excuse that the audit precludes the release?

“My lawyers, they say, ‘Don’t do it,’” Trump said during the debate.

That in itself should set off alarm bells. If the IRS says there’s no bar to releasing the returns, why would his lawyer advise that he keep them under wraps?

Presumably Trump hires lawyers smart enough to understand an audit doesn’t preclude releasing the returns, which leads one to surmise the legal advice is to avoid a potential legal entanglement.

But Donald Trump Jr. revealed a different motive the other day in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

It’s not a legal concern that led Trump to break with modern practice among major-party presidential candidates and not release his tax returns. It’s a political calculation — and a desire to avoid scrutiny.


“Because he’s got a 12,000-page tax return that would create probably 300 million independent financial auditors out of every person in the country asking questions that would distract from his main message,” Trump Jr. explained.

He then elaborated later in the interview: “I don’t think you want to talk about 15,000 people asking about $500 fees and bringing up questions that take away from the dialogue.”

So much for the audit excuse.

The whole point of releasing tax returns is to create some transparency — letting voters know where your financial interests lie, where you may have conflicts of interest, whether you have paid an appropriate share of taxes, whether you have, in fact, donated money to charities.

Trump has shown again and again — Politifact estimates that 70% of his statements have been mostly or completely false — that his oft-repeated phrase “believe me” should, in fact, not be believed. Trump, through repeated lies and misstatements, invites cynicism. He gets no benefit of the doubt.

Trump has based his credibility as a leader on his business success, so it’s intrinsically in the public interest to understand the scope of his business dealings — especially in Russia and other countries with which he would need to hold a hard line as president.

This means public scrutiny of the tax returns isn’t a campaign distraction. It’s necessary to help voters verify Trump’s narrative of success.

That “he tells it like it is” Trump refuses to open the returns to public review and hides a political calculation behind a lie should make even his faithful backers skeptical about exactly what kind of clothes this would-be emperor has.

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