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26 U.S. Code § 6103(g)(1) says that the President can request tax return information from the IRS:

Upon written request by the President, signed by him personally, the Secretary shall furnish to the President, or to such employee or employees of the White House Office as the President may designate by name in such request, a return or return information with respect to any taxpayer named in such request.

This request, if made now, would have to be disclosed to Congress by Jan. 30, 2017 [by which point the election will (likely) be over and the next President inaugurated]:

Within 30 days after the close of each calendar quarter, the President... shall file a report with the Joint Committee on Taxation setting forth the taxpayers with respect to whom such requests were made during such quarter under this subsection, the returns or return information involved, and the reasons for such requests.

(A reason must be stated, but there are no clear additional requirements on what that reason may be).

§6103(a)(1) of the same title establishes the general rule that:

Returns and return information shall be confidential, and except as authorized by this title, no officer or employee of the United States shall disclose any return or return information obtained by him in any manner in connection with his service as such an officer or an employee or otherwise or under the provisions of this section. For purposes of this subsection, the term “officer or employee” includes a former officer or employee.

So it seems that Obama would not be able to directly share what he learns with the electorate, but merely disclosing that he has accessed the returns and after looking at them, really doesn't think Trump is in a competent position to take the office, might give more weight to what he's saying in at least some voters' eyes. Obama even publicizing that the option is there, with the implication he might use it, might add pressure for Trump to release returns voluntarily (limiting folks' imaginations), especially once the surprise factor of $0 paid (if that's accurate) has been absorbed.

Trump seems to be very willing to use executive authority to override treaties, international laws, etc. and thinks it's "smart" to gain maximal personal benefit from the laws in place in the tax code, so he'd seem to have a hard time challenging the ethics of Obama also using the existing tax laws to get the access the laws expressly permit him to have.

Trump famously pressed Obama for the release of his long-form birth certificate and still seems to think he deserves credit for getting to be able to see that, so Obama having a look at Trump's tax returns might be seen as at least partially a response which he can accomplish relatively easily from his current elected position.

Is there any polling, history, or other evidence indicating how the electorate would likely react to such a move?

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    I think this is going to be mostly opinion unless there is a poll out there already asking this hypothetical question. But even then, it's such a hypothetical that I imagine how the question is asked can also vary wildly producing very different polling data.
    – user1530
    Oct 4, 2016 at 6:10
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    Your idea about Obama [...] disclosing that he has accessed the returns [...] really doesn't think Trump is in a competent position would be a breach of confidentality similar to directly publishing the data. To put an analogy, a doctor is not only forbidden of disclosing someone's medical condition but cannot either tell (publicly) something like "By the way, Mr. X, there is a new treatment which is really effective at healing ghonorrea, after seeing the results of your last analysis I relally think you should give it a try".
    – SJuan76
    Oct 4, 2016 at 6:56
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    And yes, regardless of whether the law allows, Obama asking to see Trump's returns would be seen as greatly overstepping of his authority, as there is no legitimate thing he can do with those (and no, deciding which candidates are worthy and which are not is not the President job in any democratic country). Maybe if he were to enter the IRS after his term expires...
    – SJuan76
    Oct 4, 2016 at 7:02
  • @SJuan76 That kind of comment is too specific; it's not a good analogy. Obama could continue to make exactly the same kinds of general comments he has already been making about which candidates are and aren't worthy, unchanged, but people might give extra weight to it if they know it's even more informed.
    – WBT
    Oct 4, 2016 at 13:21
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    This could be answered with historical references if any exist.
    – Brythan
    Oct 4, 2016 at 13:59

3 Answers 3

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I can answer the Q about precedent, to some extent. 6103(g) exists since 1913. One paper claims that before it was amended in 1974, the section was abused by presidents for political purposes, but only provides one concrete example (that I could see): Nixon's administration (his chief of staff more precisely) accessing and publicizing details the IRS report on gubernatorial candidate George Wallace. But Congress didn't take too kindly to that, and included that among the impeachment charges against Nixon:

Presidential administrations have used tax information for political purposes since World War I. President Nixon's administration was no exception. In fact, it was his administration's abuses that brought the disclosure issue back into the public eye. One such misuse involved President Nixon's political strategists' desire to see gubernatorial candidate George Wallace defeated in the Alabama primary for the Democratic nomination. It was believed that a defeat in Alabama would lessen Wallace's chances of being elected President in 1972. Thus, when White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman saw a confidential report that Wallace was under investigation by the IRS, he obtained a copy of the IRS report and subsequently ensured that parts of it would be published nationally before the Alabama primary. Abuses such as this formed part of the basis for the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment resolution. Article II of the House Judiciary Committee's Articles of Impeachment charged that President Nixon, "acting personally and through his subordinates and agents," attempted to obtain tax information from the IRS for unauthorized purposes and caused discriminatory tax audits and tax investigations.

The enactment of the Privacy Act of 1974 prevented some of these abuses [...]

The paper also more vaguely alleges in a footnote that FDR used the IRS against political opponents as well, but without much detail.

TBH, the paper isn't clear though (even) if Nixon actually signed a request according to 6103(g) or if his chief of staff got that report from the IRS by some more informal means.

From a more detailed source, Nixon's chief of staff didn't actually get Wallace's tax records, but only a summary of the investigation:

According to historian John A. Andrew III, author of Power to Destroy: The Political Uses of the IRS From Kennedy to Nixon, the White House took an interest in Wallace’s tax returns in the late winter of 1970. Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman asked a staff member, Clark Mollenhoff, to take a look at the IRS investigation of Wallace’s brother, Gerald. The IRS had opened that investigation, known as Project Alabama, during Johnson’s presidency.

For someone with a background as an investigative reporter, Mollenhoff was surprisingly credulous. He accepted Haldeman’s disingenuous explanation that the president was interested in the Wallace investigation solely to ensure that it was proceeding without political interference. “Mollenhoff seemed naive in his belief that secret scrutiny of Wallace’s tax returns was justified on the grounds that Nixon suspected corruption among Wallace appointees working in Alabama IRS Offices,” Andrew wrote.

Within the Nixon administration, Mollenhoff had developed a niche as an IRS liaison. He was unable to get the agency to divulge any tax returns associated with the Wallace case, but he did get a summary of the investigation prepared by Donald Bacon, assistant commissioner for compliance. Mollenhoff passed that summary to Haldeman but, according to Andrew, refused to give a second copy to Murray Chotiner, a special White House counsel with a reputation for being Nixon’s “hatchet man.” Mollenhoff’s refusal suggested that he may have wised up, at least with regard to Nixon’s rather transparent motives.

So, this is not an exact precedent, but it's insightful enough that even this kind of info was basis for an article of impeachment.

Given that, I suspect that no president has signed a 6103(g)(1) request as such, especially against some opponent of political notoriety, but I've not been able to find a source saying that explicitly. Another book mentions though that even 6103(g)(2) which allows more limited requests in re federal job applicants isn't used as such. Instead they are asked to sign a waiver and voluntarily disclose that info.

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Tax returns are confidential documents protected by law, and the president does not typically have the authority to access them without a valid reason, such as an ongoing investigation by relevant authorities.

https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/01/22/by-a-narrow-margin-americans-say-senate-trial-should-result-in-trumps-removal/

Roughly half of U.S. adults (51%) say the outcome of the Senate trial should be Trump’s removal from office, while 46% say the result should lead to Trump remaining in office. An overwhelming share of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (86%) say the trial should result in Trump remaining in office, while roughly the same share of Democrats and Democratic leaners (85%) think Trump should be removed.

Seeing that a small majority say Trump should be removed from office and a significant majority think he has done something illegal. We can speculate that a slight majority of people would think such a move is overstepping one's authority and illegal and less than half would think it's ground for impeachment since Trump has done worse things.

More than nine-in-ten Democrats (91%) and about one-third (32%) of Republicans say he has definitely or probably done illegal things, while 90% of Democrats and 47% of Republicans say he has definitely or probably done things that are unethical.

About two-thirds of Democrats (66%) express certainty that Trump has done things that are illegal, including 79% of liberal Democrats and 55% of moderate and conservative Democrats.

Republicans are much less likely than Democrats to say that Trump has definitely done illegal things, with only 8% saying this. However, an additional 23% say he has probably done illegal things.

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The quest to see Trump's tax returns is nothing but political theatre. The only reason anyone would want to see them is to confirm whether there is any illegal activity or not. However it's not Obama's job to investigate or prosecute any individual's taxation activity; that is the job of the IRS. If Trump had been involved in ANY illegal activity with regards to his taxes, the IRS most certainly would've acted by now. Recall that Al Capone was brought down by the IRS.

How the electorate would react to Obama using his contacts and position to acquire Trump's tax returns should be self-evident. Anyone who supports Obama would celebrate the move. Anyone who supports Trump would not.

Source: common sense.

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    And yet every presidential candidate since the 60s has released their own tax returns and Trump promised to do so on multiple occasion. Rather than theatre, the real issue is honesty and integrity.
    – Jontia
    Jun 12, 2021 at 5:59
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    Rather than theatre, the real issue is honesty and integrity. Which is why it is unlikely that Obama or now Biden would make such a move, or that it would get the full backing you suggest, as it would shift the focus from Trump's integrity to their own. Tax is a difficult issue, which is why tax enforcement agencies focus on the little people, and not the financial arrangements of millionaire businesses.
    – Jontia
    Jun 12, 2021 at 6:05
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    @Jontia I wouldn't care if every human on earth released their tax returns and Trump didn't, as long as the IRS hasn't detected illegal activity, its no one else's business. And the core reason for wanting to see tax returns would be to see if there is in fact evidence of illegal activity. Since we can safely assume there is no illegal activity to be found, then it becomes clear that the only reason to request it is for Trumps adversaries to pick apart every business decision he has ever made and armchair quarterback it. The goal being of course to try and destroy his reputation.
    – NetServOps
    Jun 12, 2021 at 8:52
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    Tax returns can serve as evidence of crimes that have nothing to do with the tax code, so it is not only the IRS's job to investigate people's tax returns. The Department of Justice also has a reason to examine them - - which they are presently doing. The fact that it's possible for a rich person to pay very little tax legally does not imply that Trump's tax returns are clean. And a taxpayer absolutely has liability for fraud in the return even if it was prepared by someone else. Trump has built his entire life on lies; the idea that his tax returns are honest is difficult to believe.
    – phoog
    Jun 13, 2021 at 3:14
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    @NetServOps of course not. I am not a public servant, and I never promised anyone that I would release my tax returns. My point isn't that having a public persona implies an obligation to release tax returns but that Trump has demonstrated with remarkable consistency since the 1960s that dishonesty is a central element of his character, from claiming his buildings are taller than they really are to golf to bone spurs.
    – phoog
    Jun 13, 2021 at 4:17

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