Millions of Americans will soon file their tax returns with the federal government, while the elected leader of that government continues to hide his. President Donald Trump is halfway through a term shadowed by serious questions about past tax shenanigans and current financial conflicts of interest, yet he hasn't released any significant information about his finances.
This more than justifies the current House effort to shake loose that information.
Meanwhile, advocates should step up efforts to require future presidential candidates to release their tax returns either through federal legislation or, more practically, state-level ballot authority. Trump's self-serving breach of norms shouldn't be allowed to solidify into precedent.
Since the Watergate era, every sitting president or major candidate has released either tax returns or summaries. The law doesn't require it, but the practice is a valuable tradition that helps expose people with hidden financial vulnerabilities or conflicts of interest before voters let them occupy the White House.
In 2016, Trump became the first candidate in 40 years to break the tradition. He claimed the Internal Revenue Service was, and still is, auditing him, and therefore he can't release his returns. The first assertion may or may not be true; the second definitely isn't. Like any taxpayer, Trump can open up any part of his tax record any time he wants.
Trump is still in effective control of his businesses, having broken another long-standing presidential norm by refusing to put them in blind trusts. Trump International Hotel is blocks from the White House and routinely hosts foreign dignitaries, lobbying organizations and others with a vested interest in influencing the president.
To what extent have they? And did Trump have any business deals with foreign governments before he was elected that could create conflicts of interest today? And to whom does the self-proclaimed "king of debt" owe money? Americans have a right to ask these and other financial questions about their president — and to have them answered.
The House Ways and Means Committee chairman, Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., has invoked a seldom-used law to demand the IRS release to the committee Trump's returns for the past six years. Trump's IRS won't turn them over without a legal fight. That's a necessary fight to have.
Going forward, a federal tax-disclosure requirement for presidents and major candidates would likely have constitutional problems. But individual states, which control their own election processes, could require tax disclosure as a condition of getting on the ballot. Such efforts are already underway in almost 20 states, including Illinois.
However it happens, presidential transparency on taxes is crucial, not only regarding the current president, but future ones. Paying taxes is an unpleasant duty of every American. On this issue, more than most, the person who leads the nation must lead by example.
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