On Monday, House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) fielded questions from reporters on Capitol Hill on Russia and its attempts to influence the 2016 presidential campaign. At one point, Nunes was asked about whether Congress might use its powers of subpoena to force President Trump to release his tax returns, which would show the nature of his financial relationship with Russia — if any.
“No, we’re not gonna do that,” responded Nunes.
No one paying any attention should be surprised that a Republican-led House isn’t going to push a Republican president to release his tax returns against his will. But what Nunes’s statement also makes clear is that there is virtually no chance that the public will see Trump’s tax returns before 2019, at the very earliest.
We know that Trump — and his aides — have zero interest in voluntarily releasing the returns and believe that his victory last November proves the public doesn’t care.
Asked in January about whether a White House petition for Trump to release the returns — which had garnered more than 200,000 signatures — might cause the president to make his returns public, counselor Kellyanne Conway responded this way: “The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns.” She then added: “We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care. They voted for him, and let me make this very clear: Most Americans are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like.” (That White House petition now has more than 1 million signatures.)
Conway’s response was a break from the traditional Trump line that he would absolutely love to release his tax returns, but, unfortunately, they are currently under audit. Still, it was an honest assessment of how the White House sees the issue: No one can make Trump do it, and no regular person cares if he does.
Legally speaking, Trump is right. There is absolutely no law that forces him to release his returns. (That and much more on the Trump tax return question is covered in this episode of “Can He Do That?” — The Washington Post’s kick-ass new podcast.)
And, it’s difficult to disprove Trump’s claim that his taxes have been under audit for the last 18 months or so. “The length varies depending on the type of audit; the complexity of the issues; the availability of information requested; the availability of both parties for scheduling meetings; and your agreement or disagreement with the findings,” according to the IRS website. Trump, as a billionaire, would presumably have a quite complicated tax return. So it’s tough to say that his audit absolutely should have been concluded by now. And Trump isn’t exactly offering up a timeline.
As for whether the 2016 election should be read, as Conway suggests, as a referendum on people not caring about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, that’s a more fishy claim. While the 2016 exit poll didn’t ask any questions about Trump’s tax returns (sort of surprising to me), the Post-ABC News September 2016 poll touched on it. More than six in 10 (63 percent) of voters said that Trump was “not justified” in refusing to release his tax returns, while 31 percent said he was justified in that move. Here’s how views broke down on party lines:
Of course, saying that Trump isn’t justified in not releasing his returns is not the same thing as saying that you will be voting specifically on that issue. (By the same principle, it’s tough to conclude that votes for Trump were some sort of affirmation of his decision not to release his tax returns.)
So, Trump ain’t doing it, audit or no audit. And we know now that the Republican-led Congress won’t be subpoenaing those Trump tax returns. (Democratic-sponsored bills in the House and Senate seeking to force Trump to release his returns aren’t going anywhere.)
For people who want to see Trump’s tax returns, look to the 2018 election. Democrats would need to win back both chambers of Congress to pass legislation forcing Trump’s hand or lead congressional committees willing to subpoena the returns. While 2018 is still a long way off, the numbers for a total Democratic takeover of Congress seems very unlikely, particularly given the Senate landscape.
All of which means that it’s very likely that Trump will run for a second term in 2020 without ever having to release his tax returns./