Why Trump Really Doesn't Want to Release Those Returns

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader who is a veteran lawyer on the West Coast writes about Donald Trump’s argument that he can’t/won’t release his tax returns while they’re under audit by the IRS. (A reason that the IRS itself dismisses.)

The reader suggests that in this case, at least, Trump may have thought many moves in advance:

1. I agree with what you are saying about Trump’s tax returns. Of course I also agree with the IRS (i.e., he is free to release them; the audit is irrelevant to that question).

2. But there is ONE way in which the audit is relevant to the release, and vice versa: If Trump releases returns while they are still auditable or being audited—which, of course, every other candidate has done in the past—then the nation’s tax professionals, seeing them and poring over them, are likely if not certain to make public suggestions about things the IRS should look into, or how the IRS should look into them, that might actually lead the IRS to take a look at, or do, something the IRS might not otherwise have done.

3. The nation’s tax professionals might even detect tax fraud that the IRS might miss. That’s a criminal matter—not a back taxes or penalty matter. Which of us would be surprised if they did, in Trump’s case?  (Remember the IRS caught Nixon on tax matters while he was still president; it didn’t help his situation.)

4. Not to mention that if the tax professionals make their suggestions to the IRS privately, then there is the possibility of their earning an actual reward if as a result the IRS is alerted to something that leads to the IRS collecting more tax from Trump than the IRS would otherwise have done.

5. My own suspicion is that the ranks of the nation’s tax professionals probably contain individuals, hostile to Trump or to tax cheats, who ARE aware of tricks the IRS has not yet suspected or at least fully caught up with (there are always new tricks) among taxpayers with really complex returns.

6. At a minimum, the IRS would have a greatly expanded army of volunteer auditors in Trump’s case!

Of course, these are all problems that Trump should have thought of before he became a candidate. Perhaps he did, hence the unequivocal nature of his stonewalling. And if Russia really wanted to prove that they are not partial to Trump, and if his returns were filed by his team or are kept by the IRS in electronic form, then the Russians could release his returns for him.  Somehow I doubt that will happen.


Update another reader writes:

I think you and all other reporters have missed one essential point regarding Mr. Trump's tax returns. That is, even if there was some justification for withholding returns under audit, that does not explain the refusal to provide returns for older years.

My understanding is that years before 2009 are not under audit, and it might be very helpful if someone would point this out or ask Mr. Trump to produce those returns. He won't, but at least it might help show than his stated reason is bogus. Possibly some journalist has done this but I have not seen it.