Last year, Donald Trump became the first major-party presidential candidate since Watergate to keep his tax returns hidden from public scrutiny. The official rationale was that he was under an IRS audit, which (a) was never substantiated and may not have been true; and (b) wasn’t a legitimate excuse for secrecy, since the Republican candidate’s returns could’ve been disclosed anyway.
The issue doesn’t come up much anymore – the answer is always the same – so I was glad to see a reporter broach the subject at yesterday’s press briefing with White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. The secrecy position hasn’t changed, but I was glad to see a slightly different answer from the president’s spokesperson:
“My understanding – and I will double-check – but the president’s taxes, no matter who the president is, actually immediately go under audit after being filed.”
In this case, Sanders is actually telling the truth. Since Watergate, every president, as a matter of course, has his or her annual tax returns audited so long as he or she is in office. It’s not optional, and Trump’s tax materials will be subjected to the same analysis as each of his modern predecessors’ returns.
In fact, this creates a convenient excuse for Trump World. No one in the president’s orbit would say this out loud, but they can now effectively tell the reporters and the public, “We refused to offer any proof of an audit last year, but now we can say with legal certainty that Trump’s returns are the subject of an IRS audit.”
There are, however, two nagging problems.
First, it still doesn’t matter if the president is under audit. Barack Obama was subject to the same requirement; his tax returns were audited in every year of his presidency; and the Obama White House nevertheless released the materials to the public and the media. They’re still online here. And here. And here. And so on.
In other words, Trump still owes the public some kind of explanation as to why other presidents chose disclosure over secrecy, even when they faced the same audit he’s going through now.
Second, Trump has gone out of his way to make ridiculously untrue claims about not benefiting personally from the Republican tax plan. There’s no real doubt that the president is lying, but if the White House wants to offer proof that Trump is telling the truth, there’s one obvious solution: release his tax returns.
Sanders’ comments yesterday suggest that’s not going to happen.
A couple of months ago, Trump sat down with members of the Senate Finance Committee and said they may see his tax returns one day. A Senate aide later said “the remark appeared to be flippant.” That’s likely true, though it’s an increasingly frustrating thing for the president to be glib about.