So it looks like Trump wasn’t lying when he said he wouldn’t release his tax returns—it’s Election Day,[fn1] and we still haven’t seen them.[fn2]
As has been endlessly pointed out, every Republican nominee for president since Ronald Reagan has released his tax returns, and most nominees since the 1970s have. Trump, in refusing to release his returns, is flouting a long-standing norm.
The thing is, though, he’s run a campaign largely based on flouting norms. And it’s not like the norm was aging well, anyway. Sure, there were candidates with exemplary releases. But there were candidates—on both sides of the aisle (I’ve got my eye on you, Bernie Sanders!) who did less than the bare minimum, releasing only one or two years’ worth of returns, and only really releasing their 1040s. (Several months ago, I graded candidates’ tax return disclosures here.)
Which is to say, even without Trump’s absolute refusal to release his returns, the norm was, if not on life support, at least struggling to stay afloat. But I suspect that Trump’s refusal has killed the norm.
I mean, I strongly doubt he’ll be our president-elect tomorrow. But I doubt we’ll hear many people blaming his loss his refusal to release his returns. There are a ton of more-compelling reasons to not vote for him. I get the impression that, in comparison with just about everything else he’s done, his obstinance with his tax returns will be barely a blip on the why-he-lost radar. But now that he’s refused to release his returns (and others have released minimal returns), we won’t be able to say that every candidate since Reagan has complied with the norm.
So what to do? Exactly what Joseph Thorndike has recommended: codify the norm into law. Trump released his financial disclosures. Why? Because the law requires presidential candidates to make certain financial disclosures.
Of course, the financial disclosure requirements appear to be a little more loosey-goosey than I’d prefer, so Congress would need some specificity. Specifically, it should require that:
- Candidates release at least  years of returns, ending with the most recent year’s return;[fn3]
- Candidates release their returns within [2 weeks] of their accepting their party’s nomination; and
- Candidates release the full return that they filed (with some information, including at least their social security number, redacted), not just the 1040.
There is value to candidates’ releasing their tax returns, beyond mere voyeurism, and it would be a shame if that openness and transparency went away. I fear, though, that it is endangered unless mandated by law.
There are four years until the next presidential election. That should be plenty of time to legislate. So let’s get this done.
[fn1] So go vote if you haven’t already!
[fn2] Okay, a confession: I’m writing this a little after 11:00 pm Central time on Monday night. There’s a non-zero chance that Trump will release his tax returns between the time that I finish this post and the time that it goes live. But non-zero doesn’t mean it’s significantly higher than zero. I feel pretty safe, even with the intervening 8 or so hours, in saying that he hasn’t released his returns.
[fn3] Thorndike recommends 5 years; I’m not wedded to five, although it seems like as good a number as any. Fewer returns and patterns will be harder to see; longer, and the candidate may not have a copy of the returns.