Trump’s pushback on tax return release reveal true ambitions

With his nomination secure, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDNC calls for suspension of Kushner's security clearance amid FBI scrutiny Reporter assaulted by GOP candidate: Most 'surreal experience' of my career Lawyer: Kushner to cooperate on all probes of Russia meetings MORE has made it clear that he will not release his tax returns. Democrats have responded with outrage, and even bounties for their publication, while Trump supporters scramble to explain why this time is different, and the returns should remain confidential. Trump’s refusal already is costing him in the polls, and the issue will only grow as the election approaches.

So why has Mr. Trump staked out this politically unpalatable position? The answer lies not in any sordid details that Trump’s tax returns might reveal, but rather in what the refusal itself says about the man and his ambitions.

Trump’s position of course is contrary to decades of prior practice. In 2012, Mitt Romney in the end released his tax returns, despite the fact that they were deeply embarrassing. Those returns showed that Romney paid tax at a lower rate than do many middle class Americans, by virtue of the “carried interest” tax loophole on which Romney and other private equity chieftains rely, and further suggested a very aggressive approach to the valuation of private equity partnership interests sold to his retirement accounts. Yet Mr. Romney did the right thing by following tradition, because by doing so he signaled that he was leaving behind his career as a businessman, and rededicating himself to a future as a politician and statesman. The morals of the marketplace are insufficient here; instead, we require complete financial transparency in the men and women who aspire to represent our collective interests.

Trump’s refusal has spawned a new parlor game among tax experts and political pundits, which is to guess what awful truths might be revealed were the returns to be made public. For example, some have suggested that the returns would show that Trump is deeply involved with Russian oligarchs, or organized crime. But these speculations are naïve: even a business tyro does not list “mob payoffs” as a line item expense on his tax returns. It will prove impossible from the face of the returns to navigate the layers of shell companies and complex structures that are the norm in real estate finance to identify particular individuals with whom Trump might do business.

Others suggest that Trump’s tax returns will show that he is less rich or less philanthropic than he claims. That might well be true, but it just begs the question, why would Mr. Trump conclude that these modest embarrassments are worth the cost of stonewalling the electorate?

I confess to having played the parlor game as well. My own theory relied on the fact that a large fraction of Trump’s income comes from licensing his personal brand, not from real estate projects that he owns. I speculated that Mr. Trump might have transferred the foreign rights to his own brand to a tax haven company, and set up a complex structure to exploit those intangible assets while paying minimal taxes, just as Google or other high-tech firms have done.

But on reflection, who other than a handful of tax specialists would understand, much less care, that Mr. Trump employed a “Double Irish Dutch Sandwich” tax structure to minimize his tax liabilities?

Again, the electoral cost would seem to outweigh a few days of jokes about such exotica. Mr. Trump has said that he will not release his tax returns because he is under audit by the IRS, but this is not a compelling reason for a presidential candidate to break with tradition.

Of course no ordinary business person would want his tax auditors to get free advice from crowdsourced kibitzers, but a tax return is not supposed to be an opening negotiating bid: in signing a tax return, an individual is charged with making a fair and accurate assessment of tax liability against himself. If Mr. Trump’s returns in fact fall short of this standard, that is exactly the sort of insight into the candidate’s character that our tradition of publication is meant to reveal.

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Yet this defense contains the germ of the real reason for Trump’s stonewalling. In the United States (but not every other country), business tax returns are confidential, even in the case of public companies, because the returns contain extensive information relevant to business rivals, partners and counterparties. Trump’s returns would show the size of investments in different projects, their cash flows, their financing structures, and similar information. It is completely rational for a business person to keep that sort of information close to his vest.

And this in turn points to the real lesson to be drawn. Trump expects to continue wheeling and dealing, as he always has, and the once and future businessman has no intention of disclosing important proprietary information to every potential lender, partner, competitor or customer. Trump will not release his tax returns because doing so will not be in his business interests – even if this course of action is one reason why he does not become President.

By fixating on what juicy tidbits Donald Trump’s tax returns might reveal, we all have missed why it is rational for Trump to incur the heavy political cost of not publishing his tax returns. Donald Trump will not publish his tax returns because he does not expect to be President, or at best has not internalized what becoming President actually entails. Trump’s tax return strategy is directed at a future in which he is not President, but is an even richer self-promoter. Unlike Mitt Romney in 2012, Donald Trump has not turned his back on the business world and committed himself irrevocably to a political career, but rather remains entirely focused on the Trump brand and business. Electoral success is at most a distraction from that.

Ed Kleinbard is an internationally recognized tax scholar, professor at USC Gould School of Law in Los Angeles, and author of We Are Better Than This: How Government Should Spend Our Money. Follow him and more USC Gould School of Law professors @USCGouldLaw


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