Donald Trump released new information about his finances this week — but not the information his critics on the right and left are demanding.
On Wednesday, the Federal Election Commission made public the presumptive Republican nominee’s latest personal financial disclosure, a required form that lists his assets and a broad estimate of their values.
What the disclosure doesn’t do, though, is shine the kind of light on his finances that Trump’s tax returns would provide. Trump has refused to release his most recent returns — which every major party nominee since 1976 has made public — citing an ongoing audit by the IRS. The IRS, for their part, confirmed months ago that there is nothing legally preventing Trump from making them public in the interim.
Trump’s personal financial disclosure (PFD) and his returns are designed to accomplish two very different things: One is about giving a picture of the candidate's assets in order to allow the public to determine whether an elected official has any potential conflicts of interest. The other is about determining Trump’s income for the specific legal purpose of calculating his tax payment.
Thanks to the PFD, if a lawmaker declares a large stake in a fishing company, for instance, and then starts negotiating legislation to water down regulations on fishing boats, the public can ask whether those holdings compromise that official's neutrality.
The actual dollar numbers on what candidate’s holdings are worth are pretty vague, though, since they're mostly incidental to the above goal. In Trump’s PFD, his most valuable 24 entities are valued at “over $50,000,000” each, but that’s as specific as the form requires.
“It has less to do with showing us the exact dollar amounts of your incomes and assets and a lot more with showing when you have different kind of public policy decisions, how personally invested you are in the outcomes of those decisions,” Joseph Birkenstock, an attorney who specializes in campaign finance law, told MSNBC.
Tax returns are another story, though. Because they’re used to legally determine his tax bill for the year, the dollar amounts on his income are far more specific, the type of information is different, and the requirements to get the values right are more aggressively enforced.
Only Trump’s tax returns will reveal information such as his gross income and what kind of business expenses and deductions he used to determine how much of his earnings were subject to taxation.
This question of Trump’s income and taxes are also loaded politically, because Trump is running on an estimated $9.5 trillion tax cut that would dramatically reduce rates for ultra-wealthy filers. If he released his taxes, voters would not only know his tax rate — and how it compares to that of average Americans — but how much he would save under his proposed changes.
Another question experts have raised about Trump’s taxes are his charitable donations, which would show up as deductions in his returns. The Washington Post noted in April that Trump’s campaign has listed thousands of charitable donations it’s made over the years, but they tended to be non-cash contributions like free use of properties for charity events.
For what its worth, Trump’s campaign seems to have a nuanced view of the importance of a candidate's tax returns. A senior campaign source told NBC New reporter Katy Tur on Wednesday that they were requesting tax returns from potential vice presidential candidates as part of their vetting process. When Tur asked whether this was hypocritical, the source countered, “Trump’s not running for Vice President.”
An additional challenge for Trump is that his goals in filing his taxes are at direct odds with his branding strategy, which is characterized by a continuous effort to highlight the superior size of his assets.
As a candidate and businessman, Trump is known for boasting about his wealth — even his statement on his PFD yesterday bragged it was “the largest in the history of the FEC” and showed he had “accumulated one of the greatest portfolios of real estate assets, many of which are considered to be among the finest and most iconic properties in the world.” He claims that his fortune is worth more than $10 billion, but independent analysts have cast doubt on the number and the PFD isn’t specific enough to directly challenge any assessments.
But tax returns are another story. The motive is to show that one’s income is as small as possible in order to pay the least amount to the government. The more successful Trump is at arranging his finances to this effect — and he said he tries to “fight like hell to pay as little as possible” — the less impressive his business prowess will look.
Already this dynamic has turned up in fights over local property taxes, where more information is publicly available.
Trump’s 2015 disclosure listed Trump National Golf Club in Westchester as one of his most valued properties, worth more than $50 million. But the course’s attorneys argued to local tax assessors in Ossining, New York, that its value should be considered just $1.35 million for tax purposes, a massive reduction from its previous value of $13.5 million that would have slashed its tax bill by 90 percent. After ABC News pointed out the discrepancy, Trump’s attorneys raised the proposed value to $9 million. He’s had several similar disputes with local tax assessors over other golf courses that his attorneys have claimed were overvalued for property tax purposes.
In Trump’s latest disclosure, though, he again listed Trump National Golf Club in Westchester as a $50 million-plus property. He also claims it generated $10.3 million in income. A spokeswoman for Trump's campaign did not immediately respond to an email requesting an explanation for the discrepancy.
It's important to note that it isn’t a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, though. Property taxes are based on the property’s value as its used, not in its potential value if, say, the same land were purchased by another billionaire for a more lucrative purpose.
“I could convert Doral [in Miami] into thousands and thousands of [housing] units, but that is a different value as golf," Trump told Fortune this week when asked how he valued his properties when calculating taxes.
But it does get at the tension between Trump’s urge to play up his value in public and play down his value to tax collectors. It's not hard to see why Trump would be reluctant to have these two public descriptions of his fortune running against each other at the same time.