What's in Those Tax Returns? Some Informed Guesses

This guy, "D. J. Quacker," shown outside Trump Tower in New York yesterday, wants Donald Trump to release his taxes. So does a former commissioner of the IRS. (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

With 61-plus days until the election, Donald Trump remains the only major-party nominee for the presidency or vice presidency of the post-Watergate era who has refused to release his tax returns. Not coincidentally, of all nominees through that period, Trump also has the most complicated and least-publicly-understood personal and corporate finances.

Why is he drawing the line here? Readers offer their hypotheses:

I started my career with a year as an IRS agent before jumping across the desk to work for a “Big Eight” firm (which I think is now the Big Four?).

It’s been a long time since I’ve been doing taxes, but my gut tells me Trump hasn’t filed in the first place.

I remember being involved with clients who had endured bankruptcies, the implosion of complex energy partnerships, and/or the collapse of the real-estate market.

Their partnership K1s would be delayed for so long that we’d sometimes have to file with numbers we ... well... sorta made up. Once the K1s arrived we could always go back and amend, but by providing some form of a reasonable estimate we could show good faith.

However, there were some clients that hated the tax code, and the entire Byzantine process (not to mention our fees). So some of them opted out until something came along and forced their hand to file (e.g., an audit).

Many more were just procrastinators.

All this to say Trump reminds me of some of those clients who literally kept a small army of accountants and lawyers busy year round. One of my friends called clients like that “Pig-Pen,” after the Peanuts character that always left a trail of dust behind him.

Guys like Trump are “Masters of the Universe,” and maneuver in and out of bankruptcies, and partnerships, and *deals* in such a fluid manner that dealing with the IRS is like just another banker sitting around the table.

No big deal, just the cost of doing business.

***

In August, a reader sent this note from an online discussion of Roger Stone’s observation that of course Trump should release his taxes:

“As [a] former … IRS agent in large dollar cases I can tell you why Trump is being audited every year and what he doesn’t want you to know.

“It’s this: high net worth individuals with multiple corporations have tax departments that deliberately take positions they know they can't sustain and just wait for the IRS to go out and hopefully find only a fraction of the money they really owe. It’s a low interest loan from the government to which they don't have to submit an application … just submit a return they know is wrong and wait for the IRS to come along and correct it … thus the annual audits. IRS does not audit unless they are going to get big bucks.

“Simple answer, Trump is a taxcheat. That’s what he doesn’t want you to know.”

After quoting the former IRS agent, the reader adds:

As you mentioned, as long as Trump's tax return remains private, the public is free to speculate as to why he would not release them. You mention over and over again that he hasn’t released them but, unless I’ve missed some of your writing, haven’t delved too much into what it really means.

Right, because I have no idea. All we can logically infer is that something in those returns would be worse and more embarrassing for Trump than his refusal to release them has been.

***

Another reader speculates on what the source of embarrassment might be:

You have mentioned many times about Trump’s failure to release a medical report.  This omission is likely very analogous to his refusal to release his tax returns.

The likelihood is that the reason for both is not either criminality (in the case of his taxes) or infirmity (in the case of his medical records).  The likelihood is that both are due to embarrassing private details.

It has often been speculated that his tax returns might show embarrassing details such as much lower than advertised wealth, sleazy financial connections to Russia, or chiseling on charitable donations.

My assumption is that his health-care records reveal a stigmatized health condition.  As he was by all accounts, including his own, quite the swordsman in his day (the ’70s and ’80s) there is a very high likelihood he has at some point contracted herpes or HPV.  That is the only plausible reason why he would be unwilling to release his medical records.  Both conditions are extraordinarily common and total irrelevant to his fitness to be president.  But either would be mortifying for him (as well as just about anyone else) to have the condition revealed publicly.

This may be idle speculation but frankly pales in comparison to Trump and his allies’ repulsive Swiftboating of  Hillary’s health.

***

The next reader, a lawyer, begins with a reference to an essay by Fred Goldberg, former IRS Commissioner, called “Trump has no excuse not to release his tax returns”:

Fred Goldberg’s essay reminds me of an important point about Trump:  Throughout this campaign, he has consistently placed his personal and business interests over his duty to the public as a candidate.

From his refusal to disclose tax returns (because it might possibly impact his ongoing audit) to his billing for the use of his business facilities to his trip to Scotland in the middle of the campaign (a task which he could certainly have delegated to one of his children), it has become clear that, if elected President, there will be constant conflicts of interest that arise and that we should have no confidence that he would opt to advance the public’s interests over his own.

***

A brief note on the value of the returns:

So far there is cloud of unreality investing and obscuring the entire Trump phenomenon . For that reason alone  the tax returns are of added value because they will contain at least a breath of reality. They might be the only real thing we can know about this very peculiar candidate.

***

Finally, a reader refers to something that has been in and out of the news during Trump’s campaign:

With regard to Trump’s taxes, he has received the NY State STAR tax rebate for the past two years. This tax reduction is automatically given to anyone making less than $500,000 in reported income... The STAR rebate has not been revoked as far as I've seen (it is granted electronically). Trump is a billionaire claiming a tax credit meant for middle-class New Yorkers, because of depreciation rules for his real-estate holdings. I'm sure that's a big part of why he doesn't release his tax returns.

There is of course one person who could end all this speculation, and that is none other than the man Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Tom Cotton, Pat Toomey, and a long list of other luminaries think should become president. He’s also the man at the bottom of the list below, re-upped from yesterday.

  • Post-Nixon presidential and vice-presidential major-party nominees who have agreed to release their tax returns before the election: Gerald Ford (summary statement), Bob Dole, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Geraldine Ferraro, Dan Quayle, Mike Dukakis, Lloyd Bensten, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jack Kemp, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, John Edwards, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Hillary Clinton, Tim Kaine, Mike Pence.
                                                                                                                                                        .
  • Nominees who have refused: Donald Trump.