Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on October 31, 2022, and has been updated to reflect the latest developments.
The Supreme Court issued an order on Tuesday that clears the way for a House committee to obtain Donald Trump’s tax returns, seemingly putting an end to a years-long saga in which the former president fought the release of his returns.
Trump broke with recent tradition for presidents and presidential candidates by refusing to release his past tax records, insisting that he was under audit and therefore could not release the returns. He can release them even while he’s under audit. He has also repeatedly insisted that tax returns provide little financial information. (This is also not true.)
Trump’s repeated attempts to keep his tax returns private – over years – begs the simple question: Why? And there are several potential reasons that jump to mind:
1) Trump may not be as rich as he says he is. Not long after Trump launched his presidential campaign in 2015, he said he was worth upwards of $10 billion. Forbes estimated his net worth was less than half that that year. Trump appears to use outlandishly elevated claims of his wealth as proof positive he is smarter (and better) than most people. It’s uniquely possible that a release of his tax returns would take the air out of a balloon that Trump has been blowing up for much of his adult life.
2) He may not pay (or hasn’t paid) his fair share of taxes, despite his claims that he pays “a lot.” We know, thanks to reporting from The New York Times, that Trump paid zero federal taxes in 11 of the 18 years of returns that the publication was able to obtain. And even in 2017, his first year as president, Trump paid just $750 in federal taxes – a paltry sum for someone as wealthy as he is. The Times estimated that “Trump has paid about $400 million less in combined federal income taxes than a very wealthy person who paid the average for that group each year.”
3) The $73 million refund. We learned from the Times’ reporting that Trump applied for a $72.9 million tax refund in 2010. (He claimed large losses that were widely attributed at the time to the decline of his Atlantic City casinos.) The IRS started its audit of the refund in 2011, which was still ongoing as of 2020. It’s uniquely possible that Trump simply doesn’t want to have the refund issue brought back up, for fear he might be on the hook for the amount.
4) Trump may have loans with foreign countries or individuals. We know, via congressional testimony from former Trump confidante Michael Cohen, that the former president was deeply involved in the potential construction of Trump Tower Moscow. And that Cohen lied about that involvement (and how long it stretched) to protect Trump. Donald Trump Jr. reportedly said at a 2008 real estate conference: “In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. Say, in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo, and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
5) He might not donate much (or anything) to charity. Trump long used his charitable organization to feather his own nest and collect political chits rather than for any philanthropic purposes. (Trump shut down the charity in 2018.) It’s not at all clear how generous (if at all) Trump has been to other charities over the past few decades. While there is no requirement for wealthy individuals to make large charitable donations, many do. And so, it would be a decidedly bad look for Trump if it looked like his repeated claims of largesse donated to charity wound up being false.
Whatever the reason – or reasons – it’s been clear for the last seven years that Trump is absolutely dead set on keeping his returns private. Which makes the Supreme Court’s move on Tuesday all the more important.