President Trump’s refusal to make his tax returns public is intriguing and troubling. The IRS routinely audits Presidential and Congressional tax returns. Yet former Presidents and most members of Congress have made their tax returns public.
Possible explanations for Trump’s refusal include:
- His tax returns may reveal that he is not as wealthy as he would like for people to believe. Many real estate investments are heavily leveraged (i.e., mortgaged), so perhaps his substantial real estate holdings represent a relatively small net worth totaling in the hundreds of millions instead of billions.
- His tax returns may reveal that he derives a disproportionate share of his income from licensing his name instead of the successful real estate deals about which he boasts.
- His tax returns may reveal aggressive interpretations of the tax code that trigger repeated audits that are not always resolved in his favor.
If Trump’s tax returns would enhance his public image by showing that he possesses great wealth or that his real estate empire is highly profitable, making his income tax returns public would seem to flatter his narcissistic ego. Similarly, if his tax returns revealed that he paid relatively little in tax, his public remarks indicate that he would view that outcome favorably. Maybe Donald Trump is much less wealthy and less successful than he wants people to believe.
Given Trump’s alleged wealth, human’s consistently acting in their self-interest, and Trump’s undeniable consistent self-promotion, the public and legislators understanding how his proposed changes to the tax code would benefit him is vital for transparent, fair government. Is Trump’s support for specific changes to the code motivated by what he thinks best for the nation, what will benefit him, or both? The one tax return that Trump has made public illustrates the importance of those questions as he advocates changes that would have personally benefitted him. In that one return he used deductions related to real estate investments to minimize his income and had to pay Alternative Minimum Tax.