I wasn’t going to post any more on this topic, but in 2012 CBS helpfully provided some historical perspective on the supposed “tradition” of candidates releasing tax returns. Some revelations:
1. Donald Trump was not the “first candidate since Nixon” to refuse to release his returns.
Who else didn’t? Why H. Ross Perot, the third party candidate who cost George H.W. Bush re-election in 1992! And what a coincidence: Perot was also a billionaire with complex finances and conflicts! Had he been elected, and that was not beyond the realm of possibility, he, not Trump, would have been the first President since George Washington without elected office experience or experience in military command. Perot got almost 20 million votes from Americans who presumable cared about other issues more than Perot’s tax returns, or his refusal to release them.
So Trump was following tradition and practice: the tradition and practice of all billionaires running for President to refuse to release their taxes. The tradition even extends to some half-billionaires: Steve Forbes, another businessman who made a strong run at the GOP nomination in 1996, also refused to release his returns.
(By the way, Perot’s returns were not a major issue in the election, nor did the mainstream media harp on it. But there was some semblance of fair journalism then.)
2. When tax returns are released by candidates, the opposition will still find reasons to object, raise suspicions, and claim that they are not enough. Mitt Romney released two years of returns, and Democrats said he was hiding something nefarious.
In 2008, Barack Obama released seven years of tax returns, then accused Hillary, his opposition for the nomination, of hiding something. “Senator [Hillary] Clinton can’t claim to be vetted until she allows the public the opportunity to see her finances — particularly with respect to any investment in tax shelters,” Obama’s spokesperson Robert Gibbs said.
When the candidate has a rich wife, it is her returns that the opposition wants to see. In the Presidential campaign in 2008, Republican John McCain released two years of tax returns (for the years of 2006 and 2007). The Obama campaign wasn’t satisfied because the candidate, whose wife’s fortune makes him one of the wealthiest members of Congress, did not release Cindy McCain’s tax returns. Was there a precedent for a potential First Lady releasing her taxes? Yes, but just one: John Kerry released 20 years of tax returns when he ran against Bush, but refused to release his wife’s returns. Teresa Heinz Kerry was worth more than $500 million at the time. Like Cindy McCain, she finally yielded to pressure and released her returns.
Neither of them had to yield, however, though in the cases of McCain and Kerry, it was their spouse’s taxes that mattered.
3. The returns can be, as I wrote, a partisan stick used by the opposing party to undermine a President. While running for President against Perot and Bush, Bill Clinton released his tax returns for 1990 and 1991, and the years between 1980 and 1990 had previously been released. He initially refused to release tax returns prior to 1980. His better half, Hillary Clinton, said, “We just feel we have gone the extra mile. Talk about accountability. We feel we have been more accountable than most people who have been in this position, and we feel very comfortable about it.”
But after the election the Whitewater controversy heated up. Unlike the case with Trump, there was an actual, documented legal issue involving specific allegations of financial wrongdoing surrounding the Clintons to which their pre-1980 tax returns were obviously relevant. Under pressure, the Clintons finally released their taxes from 1977, 1978 and 1979, and the Whitewater investigation shadowed Clinton’s entire 8 years in office. Their returns also showed that Hillary got involved in cattle commodities trading where she made a suspiciously lucky $100,000.
“The number of tax returns presidential candidates have released – both Republican and Democratic – has varied, often with much debate, hesitation and uproar.”