Is Donald Trump Smart Enough to Understand His Own Tax Returns?

We should probably be appalled and furious by the sheer gall of White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders saying that Congress is “not smart enough” to understand Donald Trump’s tax returns. But it’s almost too comical to get angry about:

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Sunday that she doesn’t believe members of Congress are “smart enough” to examine President Trump’s tax returns, pushing back against Democrats’ demands for information on the president’s finances.

House Democrats have given the Trump administration a hard deadline of April 23 to turn over the president’s tax returns, arguing that Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s concerns about the request “lack merit.”  …

“Frankly, Chris, I don’t think Congress — particularly not this group of congressmen and women — are smart enough to look through the thousands of pages that I would assume that President Trump’s taxes will be,” Sanders said. “My guess is most of them don’t do their own taxes, and I certainly don’t trust them to look through the decades of success that the president has and determine anything.

From a communications standpoint, this is a desperate play. Trump and his team know that the law is very clear: the House has every right to see Trump’s returns, and there is ample precedent for it. The only reason there hasn’t been such a battle with a White House before is that all other modern presidents have voluntarily released their returns. Trump can try to force IRS officials to prevent the release, but it’s not clear he has the authority to do so, or that the IRS will accede to the demand. And he will almost certainly lose that fight in the courts–probably even in the Supreme Court, where I don’t anticipate John Roberts going along with Trump’s flagrant violation of the law.

But since the White House wants to bring up mental acuity, one has to wonder just how much Donald Trump understands about his own tax returns. If the last two-and-a-half years have taught us anything, it’s that there is very little that Trump does understand beyond the passions of Fox News viewers. But even that isn’t due to studied intelligence. Rather, it’s to the fact that Trump is a television-obsessed member of the conservative infotainment flock himself, and thus perfectly in tune with their elan.

Trump understands almost nothing even about immigration, his signature policy issues. He doesn’t understand what tariffs are, despite being an outspoken “tariff man” and despite it being repeatedly explained to him. He understands nothing about healthcare, despite trying repeatedly to repeal the Affordable Care Act and constantly promising a better healthcare deal. He doesn’t understand that he’s not actually allowed to openly obstruct justice even if he thinks it’s just “fighting back.” And so on. The number of things that Trump seems not to understand almost defy belief for a man of his age and status.

It remains unclear if Trump even understands the essentials of the business he runs. That would actually make sense given the frequency with which he has had to declare bankruptcy in the relatively foolproof business of running casinos, even beginning with hundreds of millions of dollars in his father’s money. He has only survived by sheer shamelessness: using loopholes and outright fraud to stiff his contractors and cheat his lenders, then using his outsized ego to sell his own image on sub-par reality television shows, steaks, fraudulent universities, and other products. His golf courses tend to struggle, and there’s definitely something weird going on at least with the financing of his course in Turnberry.

So … does Trump himself understand his own tax returns? He probably knows the basics of whatever damaging secrets he’s trying to hide in them. But it’s unlikely he knows the full extent of the problems. His accountants and business managers have probably told him as much as they can, in documents as long as Trump’s mental capacity can handle before becoming distracted. But it’s also unlikely that those business managers and accountants have spoken directly to Trump’s political team about them.

Which means that the White House communications and legal teams may actually be flying blind when it comes to the dangers posed by their potential release. The question is, would even they be smart enough to understand his tax returns?

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.