Tax day came and went, and in a shocker to absolutely no one President Donald Trump missed yet another unofficial deadline to publicly release his tax returns.
Aside from two relatively minuscule leaks, we still have no idea how the president of the United States and weekend lord of Mar-a-Lago makes his money, how much he pays in taxes, if he receives any gifts that could be considered a conflict of interest, or how much he’s given to charity.
We can quantify how much it costs American taxpayers to pay for Trump’s weekly South Florida golf trips—$25 million to date, according to the aptly titled website IsTrumpAtMarALago.org—but we have no idea how much he has personally benefited from the golf courses he owns. Without any of this knowledge, the American public is incapable of knowing whose interest Trump has put first in in his first 100 days.
“I think the main concern is that he’s breaking a tradition that’s gone on for a few decades,” says tax attorney Annette Nellen, a San Jose State University professor of 27 years. “I think it helps the public just to show that, yes, they’re regular taxpayers, they comply with the law.”
While there is no law requiring Trump to release his returns, the situation is especially galling when noting that every elected official in the state, or, say, a city like San Jose, has an annual requirement to report all outside sources of income to the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission in what’s called a Form 700. It requires the disclosure of stock investments, real estate holdings, outside income, gifts and payments received to cover travel.
The same form is required for every staffer on the 18th floor of City Hall, meaning a low-level policy aide in San Jose, such as Laura Nguyen, who was hired in February to join the staff of Councilman Sergio Jimenez, has greater requirements for economic transparency than the president of the United States.
“That's a good point and some of the things we’ve heard is some members of this cabinet have stricter conflicts of interest than the president does. That’s surprising,” Nellen says. “I’m not sure that is going to be a law that gets changed under this president.”
Nguyen graduated from San Diego State University in 2015 and had a two-year stint with a television station in San Diego, according to her LinkedIn profile. Two weeks after joining Councilman Jimenez’ team on Feb. 14, she filed a Form 700. She reported no reportable interest regarding income or gifts, but that’s not the point. The form is an official state document signed under the penalty of perjury.
Would the disclosure of tax returns solve all of the mysteries surrounding Trump’s shady business dealings? Well, no.
“Every time we’ve seen someone release their returns, we have no idea if they are under audit, or if that is their final return,” Nellen says. “So, we do take a lot at face value.”
But the president’s position that he’ll release his returns after the IRS finishes an audit of his forms—an that audit has still not even been confirmed—is erroneous.
“The audit really has nothing to do with [releasing the forms],” Nellen says.
She also notes that any hopes for a Russian bombshell should also be tempered. “Sometimes you hear we’d find out about his Russian connection. If he has a partnership it will not show every invoice paid. Some of those things we would not know from his return.”
That would still be better than the status quo.