What could Donald Trump’s tax returns reveal?
House Democrats target the president’s business dealings amid accusations they are starting a ‘witch hunt’
Donald Trump is facing a new assault on his presidency, after Democrats in Congress filed a request with the Inland Revenue Service for the last six years of his personal tax returns.
“The historic move, made official by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal on Wednesday, is all but certain to unleash a legal battle narrowing in on Trump's most guarded secrets that could drag on for months or even years while shaping the terrain of the 2020 election”, says CNN Stephen Collinson, and “opens a serious new political, legal, constitutional and personal front in the party's battle to use its new majority to check a defiant president”.
The billionaire property developer bucked nearly half a century’s tradition by refusing to release his tax returns during the 2016 campaign for the White House.
This sparked widespread comment and stoked conspiracy theories as to why he would want them kept secret.
Last year it was revealed that authorities had begun investigating claims Trump took part in “dubious” tax schemes to disguise millions of dollars in gifts from their mother and father, Mary and Fred.
The state’s Department of Taxation and Finance said it was reviewing allegations by the New York Times (NYT) that the US president “received at least $413m [£318m] in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire, much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s”.
Those pushing for his tax returns to be made public say it is crucial to establish whether there is any conflict of interest between Trump’s official duties as president and his multiple business dealings.
Democratic Congressman Dan Kildee, said: “The president is the only person who can sign bills into law, and the public deserves to know whether the president’s personal financial interests affect his public decision making.”
Democrats are “concerned with the president’s compliance with federal tax laws,” The Guardian says, “as well as whether he or his family personally benefited from the tax overhaul passed by Republicans and signed by Trump in 2017”.
They “also believe Trump’s financial records could shed more light on his business dealings overseas and whether the president has violated the US constitution by receiving benefits from foreign countries without congressional approval,” the paper adds.
Yet the unprecedented and highly hostile move by the Democrats will also be seen by many supporters of the president as a political witch hunt, after the two-year battle to prove the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election ended inconclusively.
Special Council Robert Mueller's failure to implicate Trump directly in a crime has prompted a furious backlash against House Democrats and the mainstream media, and both will be wary of going on the offensive over his tax returns for fear it could backfire politically.
In a sign of the divisions within the Democratic party, The New York Times reports that “liberal Democrats have complained for weeks that Neal, 70 and a roll-up-your-sleeves legislator, was dragging his feet on making the request”.
“They have organised events in his district, taken out advertisements and produced legal briefs meant to make a case that he should act and act quickly” reports the paper.
It follows recent internal battles between the progressive and moderate wings of the party, most notably over its handling of anti-Semitism and whether to continue to pursue obstruction of justice charges against Trump.
“Trump has offered multiple excuses for why he won’t release his tax returns, a norm his predecessors followed for 40 years” says Vox. One of the explanations he uses most often is that he is under audit by the IRS, “but being under audit does not preclude Trump from releasing his tax returns — he could go ahead and release them anyway” adds the news site.
There could be a prosaic reason behind the president’s refusal to reveal his financial holdings, however. For a man who has built his reputation on an image of wealth and success, a revelation he is not worth as much as he says could be hugely embarrassing and even impact his standing with the American public.