The Questions That Should Be Being Asked About Trump’s Tax Returns

watch-trumps-tax-evasion[Editor’s Note – this is a guest post by a friend of ours here at the Emptywheel Blog, Bob Lord. Bob is a longtime tax attorney with some very salient thoughts on Trump’s taxes, and lack of production thereof]

By Robert J. Lord

A lot has been said about Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public. But despite the volume of commentary, it’s not clear the right questions even are being asked.

Trump claims he can’t release his returns because he’s under audit. At some level, that’s a legitimate concern. It would hardly be fair if thousands of tax professionals who oppose Trump politically helped the IRS by publishing their own analyses of the returns. Ultimately, however, it’s a phony excuse.

But rather than challenge the logic behind Trump’s refusal to release returns, a series of questions should be asked:

First, what tax years are under audit? Does it go back beyond 2012? If not, can the 2011 return be released? After all, the statute of limitations on the audit of that year has passed, so there’s no exposure to Trump by releasing that return. If not 2011, how about 2010?

Second, why haven’t the audit notices been released? An audit notice is a short, generic letter from the IRS stating that a taxpayer’s return has been selected for examination. There’s nothing so sensitive in such a generic notice that it could not be made public. At this point, Trump has not even offered up this most basic evidence that he is really even under audit. Why hasn’t proof been demanded?

Third, for the tax returns that are under audit, why can’t the first two pages be released? After all, those first two pages simultaneously contain the information most relevant to the public about a presidential candidate and contain no information that reveals the issues under audit. Although an audit ultimately impacts the numbers that appear on the first two pages of the return, it’s the schedules and other information that the IRS analyzes in an audit. For example, the first page of Trump’s return states the income or loss he received from partnerships and real estate investments, but it’s a schedule attached to the return, and the returns of the partnerships in which Trump is a partner, that contain the information the IRS would scrutinize in an audit.

Fourth, if for whatever reason the first two pages of the returns can’t be released, could Trump at least release five numbers from each of his returns: his gross income, his adjusted gross income, his taxable income, his self-employment tax liability, and his income tax liability? If not, then why not?

Fifth, is the sensitivity of Trump’s IRS audit the only reason behind his refusal to release the returns? Is Trump also under audit by any other tax agency, such as New York State’s Department of Revenue?

These questions would force Trump to take one of two approaches: Either continue to evade or allow the exposure of an uncomfortable (and intuitively obvious) reality – that the sensitivity of his audit is not the real reason for his refusal to release his returns. In all likelihood, he’d take the first approach, probably claiming that his tax advisors have told him not to release any information publicly. But, again, that cannot explain his refusal to release returns up to 2011, for which the statute of limitations have all expired.

What is the real reason Trump does not want to release the returns, even the first two pages? It could be that there’s some embarrassing piece of information in there somewhere and Trump learned from Romney’s refusal to go beyond a limited release of his returns that eventually people forget about a candidate’s refusal to come clean. More likely, however, the problem he’s facing is his own lack of credibility. The tax return of a real estate magnate like Trump paints a very distorted picture. Income will vary wildly from one year to the next. Important items might be buried in the return of a partnership or corporation that can’t be released because of minority partners or shareholders. Taxpayers in Trump’s position tend to bunch their charitable contributions, making them in the years they provide the most tax benefit. Unfortunately for Trump, that practice could make him appear incredibly tight-fisted if his returns over too short a period are seen in isolation.

And that’s where Trump could be trapped by his own lack of credibility. It may well be that there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for whatever Trump would prefer not to be out there for public comment. Trump’s problem is that if the explanation comes from him, nobody will believe it. And he knows it.

At a minimum, however, the above critical questions must be asked. Even if Trump has to explain a few items on his returns, that is no greater fear or burden than every other previous Presidential candidate has faced. Certainly Trump may have varied financial interests, including charitable trusts. But so have other candidates before, including Hillary Clinton this election, and all have engaged in public transparency but for Trump.

Hopefully the press, including the debate moderators, will force Mr. Trump to answer these basic questions.

Robert J. Lord, a tax lawyer and former Congressional candidate, is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Bob previously served as an adjunct faculty member at the Arizona State University School of Law. Bob’s work focuses on the relationship of tax law to inequality. He contributes to both the website and to OtherWords, the Institute’s national syndicated editorial service. Bob also is a staff member at Blog For Arizona, the leading political blog in Arizona.

42 replies
  1. Peterr says:

    More likely, however, the problem he’s facing is his own lack of credibility. The tax return of a real estate magnate like Trump paints a very distorted picture. Income will vary wildly from one year to the next. Important items might be buried in the return of a partnership or corporation that can’t be released because of minority partners or shareholders. Taxpayer’s in Trump’s position tend to bunch their charitable contributions, making them in the years they provide the most tax benefit. Unfortunately for Trump, that practice could make him appear incredibly tight-fisted if his returns over too short a period are seen in isolation.

    The solution, if this is truly Trump’s concern, is to release multiple years of tax data. If he started with the 2006 tax year and moved forward, you’d get a good mix of years with gains and years with losses. Releasing multiple returns could even turn it into a positive, by saying “this is what happens with a widely complicated tax code, and why we need to change it.”

    What you fail to consider is the likelihood that Trump is indeed incredibly tight-fisted. He’s a man who lives by the maxim “what’s in it for me?” — not exactly the question that folks involved with philanthropy ask. Sure, there’s the tax angle, but there are lots of ways to reduce taxes, and I suspect Trump spent a lot more time and money exploiting those instead of simply giving money away. The man makes deals, not donations.

    So in the absence of revealing his tax returns, I’d ask him to share with us some of the charitable donations he’s made over the last 10 years. Where, specifically, did he give personal money (not money from his foundation)? How much was given? When did he give them? How does he decide what charities to support?

    And then I’d ask those charities to confirm his donations.

  2. Bay State Librul says:

    Great analysis but he is worse than Clemens. The Texas con man. Only way to get his return is through “hacking”

    • bmaz says:

      Hey now, let’s not be inciting any crimes here!

      Also, I see you are enjoying the new editing features, to wit the BOLD.

  3. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    Trump will never release his returns. He’s spent his public whole life telling the world he has gobs more money than he actually does. It’s not even about the election. It’s about his image. It’s about his identity.

    • bmaz says:

      Yeah BAD (I just realized your acronym!) I think that is precisely right. He is not the lucrative money producer he claims to be. BUT, as Bob Lord points out in the post, with contractors and real estate developers, there can be reasons where things are undervalued…for a time. But that proof at any given instant very well could be in lettered schedules and K-1’s.

      That is okay. Let’s grant that a competent attorney might advise Trump not to make public the latest audit bait. Fine.

      But why can’t Trump at least proffer proof he is even being audited? Why can’t he release his returns that are clearly outside of the statute of limitations?

      It is almost certainly because he is a blatant lying scam on the american tax paying electorate. Which, in light of his business dealings like Trump University and the 9/11 recovery fund, would be the least shocking thing ever.

      • Phil Perspective says:

        Why can’t he release his returns that are clearly outside of the statute of limitations?


        That’s a good question.  Willard only produced two years, long after any really relevant information from Bain would have been on there.  In fact, two years is the fewest any nominee had produced in a while, right?  The other explanation is that Trump is trying to con us again.  Meaning stonewalling then dropping them in the middle of October or something.  He is a reality TV star after all.  They don’t give the gig away in one show.

  4. seedeevee says:

    I say that Trump won’t release his taxes because this way he can always ask for Hillary’s speech transcripts.

    We will never see Hillary’s speech transcripts and Trump will never stop being audited.

    • bmaz says:

      So, do you equate Trump’s fundamental tax details with the words of speeches that Clinton has always declared the proceeds from on hers?

      Really? That seems like some false, if not bogus, equivalency.

      • seedeevee says:

        I’d say you’d be jumping to some self-serving conclusions there.  I didn’t use too many words, so you shouldn’t have been confused.

        I was obviously writing about people not getting what they want.  Something you have a problem with.

        Trump’s tax returns will say nothing about promises he has made to other people.  They won’t tell us what he thinks about anything.  Demanding his taxes is a cheap media attention-whore thing.  You should leave that to MSNBC and Fox News.

        Hillary Clinton’s speech transcripts could possibly let us learn something about her that the denomination of her paycheck would not.

        But you are looking for what you want to find and I am looking for what I want to find.  I just think what I want to find is a little more important.

        • Peterr says:

          They won’t tell us what he thinks about anything.

          Sorry, but that’s bunk, and Trump himself knows it.

          There’s a lot you can learn about someone from their tax returns, and the biggest thing is whether their public persona matches reality. Sometimes this is a delightful surprise — the humble school custodian who turns out to be worth millions, for example. Other times it reveals that someone’s been pulling a con, because they don’t want folks to know they aren’t who they say they are — various failed televangelists, for instance.

          Given how reliant Trump is on the appeal of his public persona to advance his campaign (as opposed to the content of his policy proposals), anything that threatens the image he has crafted is something he will fight against tooth and nail. His image is all he’s got. Seeing how adamant he is about keeping these returns secret, and how he lies to try to deflect anyone from asking about them (As Warren Buffet noted, saying “I’m under audit” is not a barrier to releasing them, but a cop-out), I’d say he’s worried about what his returns would show.

        • seedeevee says:

          I didn’t see your evidence of

          Trump himself knows it

          Is it with Hillary’s speech transcripts somewhere?

  5. Bay State Librul says:

    Come om, pure bull shit.

    Look at the work the Washington Post has done on his Foundation.

    The guy is such a fraud

  6. bmaz says:

    seedeevee – No, you certainly did not “use too many words”. But, whether you have the integrity to admit it or not, the words you did use speak for themselves and set up a clear equivalency between Trump’s tax returns and Clinton’s speeches. For you to deny that, as Peterr said, is bunk. So bleat all you want, I was not confused in the least by your few words. And they were an arguably false equivalency. That is not something I was “looking for”, it is simply what you presented.

    Your MO is to come here and be a holier than thou crackpot scold of others, whether post authors or other commenters, without really adding any unique or worthwhile content of your own. At least you remain consistent in that regard.

    • seedeevee says:

      No doubt it is

      arguably false equivalency

      You are here arguing something that is not in existence and I am telling you so.

      Should I comment on your angry drunk lawyer act – treating everyone that doesn’t agree with you as an opposing witness – where inserting false narratives, non-facts and bluster is the MO?  Sure, I just did.

      Maybe all the angry lawyers should just stay home today.  And stay off the internet.

      • bmaz says:

        Or maybe you are just full of it. Again, you present nothing of content here other than belligerence and trite insults. That will not cut it. Do better or be gone. We do not need that kind of bunk here.

  7. wayoutwest says:

    Trump’s returns would produce a lot of fodder for the Clintonite dirty tricks machine that’s why he is wise to deny them access and watch them wring their hands while most people especially his supporters know this is a dead story.

    None of the Red Queen’s ‘Get Trump’ memes have gotten much traction outside of Clinton World and the true believers are desperate for something to spin as we head into the final stretch of this contest. Trump has kept his approach simple with the factual ‘Crooked Hillary’ branding that she continues to verify in public with lies and cover-up.

    I hope they don’t have to strap the Red Queen to a hand truck like Hannibal Lector to keep her upright tonight under the hot lights but the hockey mask might be needed if she can’t control her rage and tries to eat his face.

  8. bmaz says:

    “Red Queen”. “Clintonite dirty tricks machine”.

    This is some seriously deranged stuff. You think Trump ought be coddled and shielded because you have an obsessive derangement syndrome? That is a bizarre and deluded take. Even if you fever delusions about Clinton were true, you should still want transparency from Trump.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      I’ve always thought Angela Lansbury was more attractive than Ms. Clinton.  And Laurence Harvey has it all over Donald.  But the idea that Ms. Clinton has anything in common with Mrs. Iselin, or even travels along any of the same roads, is laughable.  Hillary seems farther to the right than the already right-of-center Mr. Obama.

      • bmaz says:

        I think on foreign policy/security that is unquestionably true as to Clinton being to the right of Obama. Domestically, and on judicial policy, not sure it is at all. Think she may actually be a tad more liberal.

  9. bevin says:

    I’m unsure whether this is a sign of impending dementia, perhaps Bmaz could inform us, but Trump has been treated very unfairly by the media, which runs daily hatchet jobs. At the same time Hillary is the subject of hagiograph after apologia after obfuscation of her record.

    Which is utterly abysmal: NAFTA, the new Jim Crow, the end of Welfare, Libya, Ukraine and the dangerous crisis in Syria represent millions of casualties among the vulnerable at home and abroad. And she happily takes credit for all of them.

    Trump is not much if any better. He may even be worse. But nobody will ever know for the cacophony set up by the Clinton camp.

    There is one fly in the ointment, however, and it will be apparent to anyone who has been watching politics in Europe and North America in the past couple of years: the electorate not only no longer regards media endorsement as a qualification for high office. In fact it has become a kiss of death.

    It is a familiar theme: the elites cannot bring themselves to let the people decide. So they nudge them, drive them, shame them to do as they are told. Debate is closed down, differing points of view are suppressed, discussion discouraged. If you believe that Trump is right to keep his tax returns out of the Post’s hands- you are insane. If you would rather that the people be allowed to listen to arguments themselves-you are probably working for Putin. Or Noriega. Or Saddam. Hitler will be pleased!

    Maybe Trump should allow members of the public to come and read his returns for themselves-no copying though, there could be intellectual property at risk- and form their own conclusions.

  10. Peterr says:

    But nobody will ever know for the cacophony set up by the Clinton camp.

    This presumes facts not in evidence. It also raises a number of interesting questions . . .

    Did Hillary or her minions somehow force Trump to display his inner bully as he used petty schoolyard nicknames to belittle his opponents?
    Did Hillary or her minions somehow force Trump to accept the accolades of white supremacists, mainstreaming their extreme views?
    Did Hillary or her minions somehow force Trump to display his inner sexist pig as he insulted Carly Fiorina and Holly Cruz and Megyn Kelly and countless other women?
    Did Hillary or her minions somehow force Trump to use money from his non-profit Trump Foundation to make an illegal campaign contribution to Pam Bondi?
    Did Hillary or her minions somehow force Trump to use his foundation to purchase two life-sized portraits of himself for himself?
    Did Hillary or her minions somehow force Trump to create and support the deceptively-run Trump University, scamming millions from gullible workers looking to get ahead?
    Did Hillary or her minions somehow force Trump to call Mexican immigrants rapists and the worst of the worst?


    I didn’t realize how weak you think Trump is, if Evil Hillary is able to do so much to him and he is powerless to resist her.

  11. martin says:

    I didn’t watch the so called..ahem.. “debate”, but from what my wife tells me.. the tax returns are a moot point now. Mr. Asshat pretty much made a total jackass of himself. Of course,that’s in the eye of the beholder, but from what she said… oh man. .

  12. Bay State Librul says:

    Washington Post reported that The Donald diverted $2.3 Million to his Foundation.
    If the money was taxable income, he could be in legal jeopardy (tax evasion v tax avoidance). The guy is a dead beat.

  13. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    In Emptywheel’s absence, could we maybe have some discussion posts? Frankly the point raised on this thread is pretty interesting to me. What would be more revealing? Hillary’s speech transcripts or Trump’s tax returns. While I believe we don’t need any of these details to determine that A) Hillary is completely beholden to the banks and B) Trump is completely full of shit, if I had to pick one, I think her private speeches would be more enlightening. It’d be comparable to Romney getting caught whining about the poors to his friends in 2012. What exactly is she telling these people that they pay her so much to hear?

    • bmaz says:

      Okay, sure. But, as you may have noticed, there was a “hiccup” in out online availability as a blog yesterday. Now that we are here again, we will try to comply with your wishes. That said, if you think that a few speeches, totally disclosed on taxes and accounted for, are the equivalent of systematic tax fraud and evasion, then I am not sure how to discuss this issue with you. Because that is Clinton apples to Trump bogus oranges.

      Assume the worst: Clinton kissed some bankster ass. Are you really going to equate that with systematic tax fraud over decades? Seriously?

      • P J Evans says:

        That seems to be the most common complaint from the NeverClinton folks.

        I wish they’d open their eyes and see the world they’re wishing on the rest of us.

      • wayoutwest says:

        I have been unable to find any history of Trump being charged or convicted of tax fraud or tax evasion. Where do Clintonites get their data or do they just manufacture it as needed?

        The IRS has been auditing his returns for more than a decade so any taxes he avoided/evaded must have been done legally.

        Trump promised to release his tax returns early if Clinton released her 30K shredded emails some of which the FBI wanted to see.  If someone has them and they are released near election day the Red Queen pounding her shoe on her desk and screaming Putin won’t save her from becoming Defeated Crooked Hillary.

  14. bmaz says:

    Well golly “Way Out West” you not only have me, but the entire international legal community there!

    How incredibly brilliant of you and your superpower mind. NOBODY could have predicted your preternaturally superior mind that makes these statements, despite relentless contrary fact checking over the years.

    Yet, facts are devilish things and here we are. So, I am truly sorry if your attempt to turn Emptywheel into some kind of fact free FOX/Trump forum turned up short.

  15. Tom in AZ says:

    Been a bit since I actually logged on, first time on the new site which I think is nice. I was surprised to see Wayoutwest trolling around here. He has a long history or being a lying troll everywhere he shows up. I wonder if he brought seeveedee along with him, as it is his MO to magically become a different lying troll when he gets called out enough. Though I suppose cdv could just be another distracting troll. I apologize if I broke the rules of decorum, but this type irritate me.


    Tom in AZ

  16. wayoutwest says:

    I see why your absence hasn’t been noticed if you regularly spew unproven accusations at other commenters. I don’t expect an apology because you are probably a Clintonite and this low road attack is just part of their cult playbook where the truth only interferes with their mission.

  17. Bitter Angry Drunk says:

    Actually I didn’t notice the site was down. What I am noticing is that I can’t seem to reply to comments. (Edit: Love the edit function, though.)

    Anyway, to bmaz, I just don’t see Trump’s tax returns as all that relevant. We already know he’s a crook and a slimeball. Not sure what else would move people — including the non-insignificant numbers who will vote Trump even though they don’t like him — to change their minds. Besides, the Republicans have been defunding the IRS for years. There are likely far richer folks than Trump they’re letting skate in one way or another. Like, say, the Clintons.

    The transcripts of Hillary’s speeches would inform her policy as president. I guess you could argue that we already have a pretty good idea of what she’d do in the White House, but that still seems more politically relevant to me.

  18. jonf says:

    Great improvement over last site!

    Just to add my two cents here, I agree Trump needs to say something about his taxes. And there were a lot of good suggestions here. It really annoyed me when he thought how smart he was not to pay any taxes. On the one hand you can see that none of us wants to pay more than we absolutely have to, but then along comes a supposed billionaire who pays no taxes, brags about it,  and it kinda gets sideways to me. This is the guy who complains about the national debt.  I suspect his saying that was a tell. He may not pay any taxes.  I suppose in the real estate business you have ample opportunity for write offs and maybe that is where the IRS is spending some time.  But just say so man, just say so.

    So the question I have is this. Can it be made a requirement to release tax returns when one runs for President? I think the public needs to know what the sources of income are. I also suspect this guy will use his position to enrich himself. Gawd, he gets under my skin.

  19. RUKidding says:

    Thing is, releasing income tax info is a traditional thing that candidates for POTUS do.  I disliked it intensely that RMoney released so few returns, and if my failing memory serves me, I believe it showed that he only paid something like 17%.  Frankly, that’s important to me, but I get it that conservatives could give a crap if the mega-rich never ever pay a dime in taxes.  Apparently, ONLY IF you’re mega-wealthy is it a badge of honor & praiseworthy to not pay any taxes, but yet whine and moan about how poor people don’t make enough money to pay fed income taxes (neatly ignoring, of course, all the other dozens of regressive taxes that we all pay).

    I’d like to see Trump’s taxes.  At the least, show us the Audit letters.  Trump’s the ultimate con-man.  He’s hiding something, and as taxpaying citzen, I deeply resent it that he refuses to show them.

    Yes, one can posit that Trump is holding out in order to try to force Clinton to either release the emails and/or her speech transcripts.  Ok, fine.  But really, how much more are we going to gain from seeing either?  We already know what she was paid, and I’m sure that she promised not to go after Wall St and the Banksters.  The emails?  I’m not sure how much more info we’ll get from them.  It’s doubtful to me that it would make much difference, as people’s minds are already made up about the Clintons.

    We already have at least the equivalent of an Audit Letter and the first couple of pages of a tax return from Clinton in re to the speeches and the emails.  We have bupkiss from Trump.

    I’m not a Clinton fan.  I didn’t vote for Bill the second time (and only reluctantly voted for him the first).  I wish that Sanders had won the primary, but he did not.  Trump, with his White Supremacist out loud and damn proud of it followers, is simply a bridge too far for me.  Not thrilled to have the prospect of yet another Clinton in the White House, but really?  I’m pretty tired of so-called “intelligent” people defending Trump.  He’s a con-man.  Read his latest Tax Plan (I think it’s number 3).  I have.  It’s a total give-away to Trump and his labyrinth of industries.  If you think that’s ok, well so be it.

  20. Jonf says:

    RU, I agree with most of that. Clinton has released years of tax returns and all of them. They give considerable amounts to charity and pay a fair share in taxes. Trump likely pays nothing but we need to see what his foreign sources of income and expenses are as well. I wonder if Russia is not In there somewhere. RMoney’s return was just aggravating and he paid little.

    I have problems with Clinton too and I liked Sanders but there is, for me anyway, not even a close contest between Trump and her. Plus I am also sick of the freaking e mails and talk of illegal misdeeds. That beat has run out awhile ago. Charge her or forget it. She seems to,have been simply stupid about her e mails. As always YMMV.

  21. earlofhuntingdon says:

    NPR suggested one reason why Trump might not want to disclose his returns: he appears to take public credit for charitable gifts actually paid for by others.  That a real estate mogul or any bidnessman would avoid using his own money whenever possible – making others bear the risk and pay the freight – should come as no surprise.  That Trump might do so and on a grand scale would be a rare display of  consistency on the part of the inconsistent and hyperbolic persona called Donald Trump.  But even if Trump accounts for such PR scams correctly – which might be a big IF – the discrepancy between his public claims and his real contributions to social and charitable causes should be a PR nightmare.  Voters might begin to ask what other claims Mr. Trump makes about his behavior and intentions are bogus.  It’s not as if a presidential candidate has never won marketing awards for appearing to be or to want to do one thing while being and intended to do something completely different.



  22. rugger9 says:

    There were a couple of big booms today on the Trump empire.  First, according to Fahrenthold’s reporting, not only is the Donald a cheapskate, he also didn’t register his foundation as a charity under NY State law, which is a rather risky proposition given that the NY AG is already looking at Trump U.  I can only ascribe it to the sheer arrogance in a belief that he can talk and/or buy his way out of any scrap.


    Another is the revelation confirmed by KellyAnne Conway that there was a “foray” into Cuba in 1998 to examine business opportunities, it was under 100 k$ (as far as I’ve seen reported) and apparently looked at opportunities available since Bill Clinton relaxed some of the embargo elements.  In terms of purely business sense, this wasn’t bad to get in on the ground floor, but it was then and long afterwards highly illegal to spend money engaging in business in Castro’s Cuba.  In addition, Trump cannot win without Florida’s EC votes, and the anti-Castro vote there is substantial and rabid.  Even before this came out, HRC held a lead in FL, and would have been at more risk since Obama engaged in opening relations with Raul Castro.  However, Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen and company are all withdrawing support and the FL campaign manager just flat resigned because of this admission.  This story probably dooms Trump’s campaign all by itself, because I cannot see how he wins FL without the anti-Castro bloc supporting him.  See also the Miami Herald’s articles.


    Mother Jones has been running a series called the Trump Files of sometimes-strange-but-true glimpses into who Trump is.  As has been done repeatedly, Trump likes to have other people pay for his losses.  In this case, he created a corporation to hold the bag on his Atlantic City casinos and other people got stiffed, not him or Ivanka.


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