Beginning in the 1970s, presidential candidates began sharing basic information about their tax returns. There was never any requirement that they do this, but it became something that is expected by the media and a significant portion of the electorate. People want to know if a potential president is going to benefit personally from the policies he or she is proposing. They want to be armed with information that will alert them if a president has conflicts of interest. Arguably, this kind of information is as important as knowing a candidate’s health history and their breadth of knowledge. It can even expose politicians who have been dishonest about the sources and size of their wealth.
There are probably many reasons why Donald Trump broke with this practice. What’s certain is that he really doesn’t want the people to get a look at his tax returns. That is his right, of course, but he’s never come straight out and said that he’s not going to release them or that the people have no right to them. Most often, he’s relied on a cockamamie story about him being under perpetual audit by the Internal Revenue Service. If that were ever true, it’s certainly not a perpetual excuse for withholding them. He has the power as president to release them at any time.
But far from doing that, he’s in court right now resisting congressional efforts to get a look at them. Unlike the public, there is a law on the books that appears to give Congress the right to see anyone’s tax returns, although they’re not allowed to publish or leak them. One problem that has come up in that case is breaking into the news now. Back in July, a career officer in the IRS filed a whistleblower complaint stating that some Trump-appointed person or persons within the Treasury Department was improperly injecting themselves into the routine audit of either President Trump or Vice-President Mike Pence’s tax returns.
This is a major no-no. Political appointees are supposed to have a totally hands-off approach to people’s taxes. It’s unclear why anyone in the Treasury Department would involve themselves in the audit of any citizen’s returns, let alone those of the president or vice-president.
There are several reasons why we don’t have much clarity about the complaint. The main reason is that everything about people’s taxes is private and so no one will discuss any of the details of the whistleblower’s report. According to Bloomberg, it’s possible that the House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts will release the report, but he’s still consulting with lawyers.
It’s ironic that something like this would come up during a Republican presidency because the GOP spent a good portion of President Obama’s time in office accusing the IRS of political bias. You’d think they’d be extra sensitive about doing anything that could be perceived as improper.
The Washington Post has talked to the whistleblower, but he was not forthcoming about the substance of his complaint. Instead, he was alarmed about the behavior of the president and some of his defenders.
The whistleblower also castigated public officials who he said were making federal employees fearful of reporting wrongdoing. Trump has in recent days said he wants to know the identity of the whistleblower in the Ukraine case.
“I steadfastly refuse to discuss the substance or details of the complaint, but I have some legitimate concerns about reckless statements being made about whistleblowers,” he said. He said such statements “attack the messenger when the focus should be on the facts that were presented. I am concerned also by the relative silence of people who should be repudiating these dangerous attacks in the strongest terms.”
As of now, it’s not possible to understand the full scope of the problem or why it arose. It’s possible that this all relates to Mike Pence who has also withheld his tax returns. That would surprise me a bit, though, because it’s Trump who most clearly wants to avoid disclosure. It could be as simple as that he doesn’t want people to know that he is nowhere near as wealthy as he claims to be. It could be that he doesn’t want people to find clues that help explain his strange behavior with respect to Russia or China or Saudi Arabia. It could be that he doesn’t want people to see how much and in what ways his policies personally benefit him. It could be that he knows people will be appalled to see all the devices he uses to avoid paying taxes.
I suspect it’s a combination of all of these things.
In any case, this whistleblower report is now a subject of conversation in Congress and we may soon learn more about it. I have no idea if it has the potential to form the basis for an article of impeachment or not, but it’s possible.