The public disclosure of tax returns is only a tradition among American presidents, not an obligation. It is thus wrong that the Democrats released Trump’s returns. After all, there are other things beside his tax practices that disqualify him for future public office.
“I welcome this kind of examination, because people have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.” Richard Nixon reacted to questions about his tax payments in 1973 with these now-famous words. A local newspaper had just made public the fact that Nixon had paid only $793 in federal taxes in 1970 and only a little more than that in the previous year. In response, the president disclosed his tax returns from 1969 through 1972. “The confidentiality of my private finances is much less important to me than Americans’ confidence in their president’s integrity,”* he explained.
Nixon thus set a precedent. In the following decades, all presidential candidates disclosed their tax returns or the relevant information about them — with one exception: Donald Trump. The New York real estate mogul broke a norm that had become self-evident and is completely reasonable. It is legitimate to want to know how much a person who wants to lead the country contributes to its income. Moreover, the authority of the presidential office carries with it a significant risk of corruption. There thus can never be too much transparency, not only, but especially when it comes to a candidate for the White House with as many diverse entrepreneurial enterprises as Trump.
A Problematic Precedent for Political Mudslinging
But the release of tax returns is simply only a norm; there is no legal requirement. Congress could have established precisely such a requirement but has avoiding doing so to date. The Democrats thus used a variety of tricks to get their hands on Trump’s tax returns. Arguing that its members wanted to identify possible loopholes in the law and check the audit of the president, a congressional committee that is responsible for such issues applied to the IRS for the files. The committee has a right to do so when it can fulfill a legislative purpose.
After years of litigation, the conservatively minded Supreme Court recently voted unanimously that the documents could be sent to the committee, and it was right to do so. Congress’ regulatory powers have traditionally been conceived broadly in the American system of “checks and balances.” The files do, in fact, present several irregularities that should be addressed politically. The IRS failed to conduct the required audits of Trump’s tax returns in 2017 and 2018. It only began examining them when the special committee began its investigation. This is questionable and relevant information for the public.
It is unnecessary and a violation of Trump’s rights to the extent that the Democratic majority of the committee decided to release the tax returns. In contrast to its right to view the documents, their release does not serve any legislative goal, only a cheap political game. In addition, it sets another problematic precedent in the mudslinging between the two political camps. If it catches on, the legal right to tax secrecy for controversial figures will soon exist only on paper.
The Judiciary’s Turn
There is no doubt that Trump’s refusal to release the documents for years was striking and created the impression that he had something to hide. That made him politically vulnerable. But the decision was for the voters to make, and in 2016, Trump was elected even though the missing tax returns were a constant topic of discussion at the time. This information was apparently not critically important to the people.
It is unclear why this information should be relevant now, two years after Trump’s electoral defeat. Apparently, the former president paid hardly any taxes in some years thanks to controversial deductions. If this was done illegally, it is a case for the judicial system, which recently ruled that his corporation had committed tax fraud. If the courts come to the same conclusion about Trump himself, that decision would of course be politically relevant. But Trump has already disqualified himself for any future public office anyway — not because of his taxes, but because of his instigation of a violent coup attempt.
*Editor’s Note: This quote, though accurately translated, could not be verified.
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