Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said in a recent interview that he will not release his tax returns before the November election. "There's nothing to learn from them," Trump told the Associated Press, insisting that voters don't care about the tax returns of presidential candidates.
Historical records, opinion polls and half a century of presidential politics suggest otherwise, but these sorts of details have never troubled the Donald.
As Jason Suzdaltsev explains in this Seeker Daily dispatch, nominees for president have traditionally released their tax return information prior to the election, although they're not legally required to. The idea can be traced back to Richard Nixon, actually. While running for vice president in 1952, Nixon called for his opponents disclose their personal financial information in the interest of transparency.
Ironically, Nixon refused to release his own tax returns until 1973. Five years later, the Watergate scandal led to the passage of the Ethics in Government Act, which requires candidates to file a Public Financial Disclosure Report with the Federal Election Commission. The law does not require candidates to disclose include federal income taxes, but it has become common practice to do so.
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A strong case can be made that full disclosure of tax returns is in the public interest. Federal returns not only reveal income, but also business ventures, charitable donations and any funny business regarding offshore holdings or foreign bank accounts.
But for some candidates, the political damage of revealing the information outweighs the public perception problems of keeping it secret. For instance, Mitt Romney resisted disclosing his tax returns during the 2012 campaign. When Romney finally relented, it was discovered that he had up to $100 million tucked away in an Individual Retirement Account -- despite the fact that federal law caps IRA contributions to $30,000 per year.
Is Trump hiding similarly damaging details? His critics think so. Trump has long been accused of overstating his personal wealth, as well as his charitable contributions.
Every president since Jimmy Carter has publicly disclosed tax information returns public prior to taking office. Trump certainly is within his legal rights to keep his tax returns private, but public opinion polls suggest that voters aren't going to like it.
-- Glenn McDonald
NBC: Meet the Press-January 24, 2016
ABC: Donald Trump's Tax Returns: What We Could Learn From Them
CNN: Presidential candidates have long history of releasing tax returns
Taxanalysts: Presidential Tax Returns