Trump's devils could lurk in tax return details

Story highlights

  • McCaffery: Trump's own reluctance only reason to withhold tax returns
  • Voters should be able to decide for themselves what matters, he says

Edward J. McCaffery is Robert C. Packard trustee chair in law and a professor of law, economics and political science at the University of Southern California. He is the author of "Fair Not Flat: How to Make the Tax System Better and Simpler." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)In this electoral season of ironies, it is yet more irony that the two outsiders railing loudest against the establishment -- Bernie Sanders and Donald J. Trump -- have struggled the most with a matter routine for "insider" candidates: disclosing their federal tax returns.

Edward J. McCaffery
Sanders, after dragging his feet, made good last month on his pledge to release his 2014 tax returns. These were, as he had claimed all along, rather"boring;" they only confirmed what we knew before. Bernie and Jane Sanders are an elderly couple who earn just over $200,000 a year, collect Social Security, and pay their taxes. The much-awaited disclosure of their tax returns was met with the kind of snore usually reserved for a John Kasich policy speech.
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    Trump, the self-proclaimed real estate mogul ("mogul" a word with Muslim roots in the Persian and Arabic word mughal, by the way) can hardly make the same assertion about a potential response to his own tax returns: Boring he is not. But that's not stopping him from declaring that "there's nothing to see here" or from flip-flopping on the question of releasing his tax returns at all.
    As a professor who researches, writes and teaches about tax law and politics, I'm here to tell you: There is nothing stopping Trump from releasing those returns, or some version of them, except his own reluctance. Before Trump entered the race, he told Hugh Hewitt in early 2015 that if he ran, "I would release tax returns." In February of this year, "The Donald" stated to CNN's Wolf Blitzer that he would not release his tax returns while they are under IRS audit — as, apparently, his returns dating back to 2009 still are. And yet, Trump has released tax returns during audits before. Plus, the fact of an IRS audit did not stop Richard Nixon, an actual president not well known for his transparency, from releasing his returns for 1973, in the midst of Watergate.
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    Granted, Trump's hesitation is at least understandable given that the inevitable heightened scrutiny to the returns could only help the IRS, Trump's adversary in the audit. But the claim that we the voting public have nothing to learn from those records is both self-serving and false. There is much we could learn if we saw the returns. A few examples: How much does Trump really earn -- more than we think, or less? What taxes does he pay on his reported income, and what is his effective tax rate? What means — legal or otherwise — does he use to reduce his tax liabilities? Would he benefit personally from any of the tax changes he's stumping for on the campaign trail? What, if any, charities does he support? With whom is he financially connected? The list goes on.
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    In spite of all this, it seems that The Donald is determined once more not to let truth get in the way of a good story. The latest news is that Trump is saying he will not now, not ever, release his tax returns. As reported by CNN, Trump, when asked if he would release his returns, said "No." Why? "One, the voters don't actually care about this, and two, there is no new information that would come out of the tax returns."
    Really? What's changed since all those other times he swore he'd release the returns, or pledged that he'd release them once out of the grasp of that nagging IRS audit? Apparently, Donald Trump's own promises are less important than his knowing best what voters care about. Why not let the voters decide for themselves, based on what they can actually see, what they care about? If he's worried about saving paper, Trump could release the returns electronically (he seems to have access to e-media). Is Donald J. Trump, media magnet extraordinaire, trying to save the press and public time? This does not add up.
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    After all, since when is the fact that something contains "no new information" a reason for a presidential campaign not releasing a statement, or giving a speech, or, for that matter, doing or not doing anything? Getting a guarantee of "new information" matters less than the many perfectly good reasons to let the public see and evaluate the tax returns from presidential candidates. That is why every major party candidate since Gerald Ford in 1976 -- 40 years ago -- has disclosed at least one year of returns. Why not Trump?
    Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, repeatedly dissed by both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as the establishment insider, has disclosed her and Bill's tax returns for the last eight years. There are plenty of devils in those details -- like payments for speeches given to Goldman Sachs, if that rings any bells. But the public is certainly within its rights to prefer the devils we know to those we don't. What demons populate Trump's 1040s? We just don't know, and apparently never will.
    The fact is that tax returns are a mirror, however cloudy, of what a person chooses to show to his government and to share with his fellow Americans. Who is the real Donald Trump? Anything that can help the public to understand the answer to that question better should be out in the open. Trump is asking us to vote for devils unknown because, apparently, he believes we don't care.
    Let's hope he's wrong about that.