Trump Time Capsule #103: ‘Asking Questions’

Donald Trump Jr., at right, with his brother Barron and stepmother Melania at the Republican convention. Today he weighs in about taxes. (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This one is just a note for the record. Please recall the sequence:

  • Four years ago, Donald Trump said that Mitt Romney should release his tax returns. That’s hardly a surprising position: Every major-party nominee since Richard Nixon has been expected to do so, and has.

  • Through the past year, Trump has said repeatedly that he’d be happy to release his tax returns but can’t because they are “under audit.”

  • That excuse is bullshit. No lesser authority than the IRS has said so repeatedly and unmistakably. Whether or not the returns are actually being audited (as discussed here), there is no legal reason whatsoever to keep Trump from releasing them.

  • While Trump has stuck with his utter-bullshit rationalization, and while establishment Republicans from Paul Ryan on down have averted their eyes, reasons have mounted up to think that a disclosure expected of all previous nominees is especially important for him. These include: the shady operations of his Trump Foundation; the unsubstantiated nature of most of his claimed donations; and, significantly for a president, the extent of his reliance on foreign creditors and customers.

  • Even without any of these complications, tax returns are part of the “transparency” expected of a potential president. Michael Dukakis had no complicated wealth to speak of, nor Joe Biden or Barack Obama as nominees, but still all of them had to turn over the records. Donald Trump’s finances are more complex than those of any prior nominee and thus of greater potential public significance. But he has stonewalled, and his enablers in the party have allowed him to get away with it.

Finally today two campaign representatives shifted the rationale, as if the previous one had not existed, to one that is more completely indefensible.

First Donald Trump Jr., then campaign ally Jack Kingston said that that Trump Sr. couldn’t release the returns because people might find things in them. As Trump Jr., who tends to make his father’s points with less finesse, said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

When asked why his father has not released his tax returns as presidential candidates have traditionally done, Trump Jr. said, “Because he’s got a 12,000-page tax return that would create … financial auditors out of every person in the country asking questions that would distract from [his father’s] main message.”

Kingston, a former congressman who now works for one of D.C.’s biggest lobbying firms but is part of Trump’s “anti-insider” team, made a similar point today on CNN:

“If you put it on the table, you’re going to have 300 million Americans second-guessing what is this, what is that?”

Of course, asking what is that?, aka “second-guessing,” is why public officials have to make financial disclosures. It’s why both Kingston and Donald Trump Sr., and presumably Donald Trump Jr. as well, were hammering Hillary Clinton to release her emails. If all the information in medical records, financial reports, or official emails were flattering, no one would be required to release it. It’s only because it can lead to “second-guessing” that it’s expected of public officials.

***

I’m noting this in real time, at a moment when like so many other flaps it’s prominent on talk shows and news feeds. But like so many other “never before!” episodes in the Trump campaign, it’s likely soon to become “normalized,” and fade.

I note that with 53 days until the election, and with polls tightening, a nominee continues to defy a norm that his modern predecessors have all respected—and that his campaign has stepped away from his previous rationalized excuse and, out of nothing, invented a new alibi. And his party’s leaders say: That’s fine. People will look back on this time.