The controversy surrounding Donald Trump and his hidden tax returns was, at a certain level, stuck. The presumptive Republican nominee could release the materials – as every major-party nominee has done for the last 40 years – but he’s using an audit as an excuse to justify secrecy. In time, he’ll either succumb to pressure or he won’t.
But this morning the story took an unexpected turn. For quite a while, Trump has suggested he’d be comfortable with disclosure – he specifically said this week he’d “like to” disclose the tax documents – but the IRS process is standing in the way. It’s a bogus posture, which he seemed to abandon this morning during an interview with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos:
STEPHANOPOULOS: Yes or no: Do you believe voters have a right to see your tax returns before they make a final decision?TRUMP: I don’t think they do.
He quickly added that he’s willing to “present” the documents anyway, after “the audit ends.”
When the host asked what tax rate he currently pays, the Republican candidate snapped, “It’s none of your business. You’ll see it when I release. But I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.”
There’s no shortage of angles to this – Trump’s hypocrisy, his dishonesty, his reversals from previous commitments – all of which raise questions about what in the world the presumptive GOP nominee is so desperate to hide. For that matter, given how eager Trump is to slash rates for the wealthiest of the wealthy – people like Trump himself – it arguably is our “business” to learn just how big a tax break the Republican candidate intends to give himself.
But just below the surface, Trump’s rhetoric reminded me of something we heard four years ago.
At a 2012 debate, Mitt Romney, who spent months trying to keep his tax materials under wraps, declared with some pride, “I pay all the taxes that are legally required and not a dollar more. I don’t think you want someone as the candidate for president who pays more taxes than he owes.”
Paul Waldman noted at the time, “Apparently, Romney feels that if you don’t hire lawyers to help you take advantage of every hidden provision and loophole that might lower your tax bill, you’re some kind of contemptible sucker unworthy of high office.”
Four years later, Donald Trump’s line seems eerily similar: “I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.” It wasn’t an observation so much as a boast.
In 2012, Democrats used Romney’s line to up the pressure on him to release his returns and document exactly how much he’s paying and at what rate. In 2016, Trump should expect the same questions, whether he thinks they’re reasonable or not.
Postscript: As part of this morning’s interview, Trump also said “many presidents” have not released their tax returns. Pressed to explain, he said he was referring to pre-1976 presidents.