Why is it such a big deal that President Trump has not released his tax returns?

Also, why would he make such a big deal about not releasing them, given that this just makes everyone more interested?

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    Some comments removed. Everyone, please remember that comments are for requesting clarifications or suggesting improvements to the question. Please do not attempt to answer the question in comments.
    – yannis
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 15:35

8 Answers 8


There's a whole wikipedia article on the topic.

In a nutshell, he has been the first major party nominee since 1976 not to make his tax returns public. And he did not release them in spite of promising during the campaign that he would.

When he reneged on the promise, he put forward that they were complex enough that lay people wouldn't understand them or something to that effect if memory serves me well. He also purported that he couldn't release them because they were being audited -- but that doesn't actually preclude releasing them.

US voters care about this, and rightly so. There's the matter of transparency for starters. More importantly, it's the only way to know whether Trump was profiteering while holding his office. Incidentally, and contrary to what usually happens, Trump refused to divest from his business while president. One consequence of this is that foreign dignitaries stay at Trump properties to try to get favors from or access to Trump. (See the call transcript that ended up at the center of Trump's impeachment investigation among many, many other stories.)

Further contributing to the poor optics of the situation, Trump asked McConnell to prioritize confirmation of the IRS counsel early in his presidency. Desmond, his nominee, had briefly advised the Trump Organization on tax issues before Trump took office.

At this point the most charitable explanation is that Trump is not as wealthy as he claims to be and is withholding the returns to protect his ego. The less charitable one is that there might be a few rats in the returns that he'd rather keep away from public scrutiny. Lending further credence to the latter, a whistleblower brought attention to possible improper "efforts to influence" the mandatory IRS audits of Trump's (or Pence's) tax returns.

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    taxes would not show whether he is wealthy or not. There is no federal property tax. He could have a negative income for 20 years and still have more money than he started with because of appreciating real estate assets.
    – grovkin
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 7:16
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    @grovkin that alone would be really interesting. And could be used to make the case that taxation laws are blatantly unfair and should be changed to stop such ridiculous situations. Given taxes are generally private, having a published tax instance for a real person would be a significant boost for those proposing tax reform.
    – Jontia
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 8:07
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    For context, 1976 was the election after Nixon, who almost had tax fraud added to the list of articles of impeachment. Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 19:59
  • @AquaticFire: Let's not forget Agnew. :D Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 20:13

This isn't the only reason, but one of the current reasons is that Donald Trump has not divested himself of any of his business holdings before assuming office. He has continued to profit off of these businesses throughout his term in office. The emoluments clause exists for a reason. There is a great deal of evidence of foreign powers paying money to Trump hotels in order to curry favor with him.

In short, his tax returns give people a way to examine whether and how he is being bribed. It's not the whole story, but it is a critical part of the puzzle.

There's also the fact that the public wishes to have someone honest enough to reveal their tax forms to serve as president. It's called transparency. Trump promised that he would during his campaign, and then betrayed his own promise to do so. That makes him a liar and a cheat.

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    A couple of sources sustaining the "great deal of evidence" would be welcome.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 6:15
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    @Evargalo: See the call transcript that triggered Trump's impeachment inquiry among many, many stories. Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 6:31
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    @DenisdeBernardy thank you. I think those links should be added in the answer.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 8:30
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    I don't understand how divesting himself from his businesses while in office would help in any way of preventing the potential for bribery. Even if he did so, he would have those businesses back after his term ended (or after his second term, in case he won another), so someone could still pay a lot of money to his hotels and he would still get that money, just a little later.
    – vsz
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 13:26
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    @vsz not necessarily; Carter put his famous peanut farm into a blind trust and found out that it had lost a lot of money after getting it back.
    – pjc50
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 14:41

As to who cares and wants to see them released, polls say something over half the voters do, e.g. https://morningconsult.com/2019/04/10/most-voters-support-democrats-quest-for-trumps-tax-returns/ (Numbers of course vary by the pollsters and dates, but AFAIK it's always been a fairly large share of the electorate.)

Of course we don't know why all these people would like to see them released. There are probably many different reasons, ranging from "It's traditional, all the other Presidents/presidential candidates always have." to "It'll show that he's committing tax fraud or other crimes, lying about his wealth, and so on."

As for why he's making a big deal out of not releasing them, there seem to be only two possible reasons. Either he knows that they really will prove that he's committing fraud and/or lying about his wealth, or it's simply a matter of ego.

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    I hope you realize that the idea that he is committing tax fraud is absurd. These are tax returns. Which means they have already gone through the IRS. If the IRS can't find fraud in those returns, it's not there.
    – grovkin
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 7:18
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    @grovkin Doesn't tax fraud usually mean the information provided to the IRS is inaccurate? Reality behind the forms is the key. That said, obviously releasing the forms wouldn't demonstrate that.
    – Jontia
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 8:09
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    @Jontia: releasing the forms would not, in itself, demonstrate that, but it would provide a baseline for others to dispute the information that was provided. Thus, releasing them provides a basis for investigating tax fraud.
    – jalynn2
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 12:36
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    @grovkin the IRS are less inclined to look at tax returns for wealthier individuals. There was a number of stories covering this recently, here's one on fox business. So just because the IRS has accepted his returns doesn't mean there isn't fraud. It means nothing is publicly known to be wrong with them.
    – BurnsBA
    Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 12:51
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    @grovkin, there are lots of fraudulent tax returns filed by many individuals all of the time. It's more of a matter if they decide to do an audit to discover such fraud. As long as some of the numbers in the tax return add up in the return itself and supporting documentation, it will likely be accepted. Commented Oct 8, 2019 at 13:09

It would certainly be of interest to the Attorney General of the State of New York, who is currently suing Trump over the legality of his charity organizations.

The lawsuit alleges that Trump has been earmarking charitable donations that have actually been used to benefit Trump's personal, business, and political interests.

The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, culminated a nearly two-year investigation of Mr. Trump’s charity, which became a subject of scrutiny during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. While such foundations are supposed to be devoted to charitable activities, the petition asserts that Mr. Trump’s was often improperly used to settle legal claims against his various businesses, even spending $10,000 on a portrait of Mr. Trump that was hung at one of his golf clubs.

Charity organizations are typically tax exempt - but they have to actually be charity organizations legally in order to maintain this tax exempt status.

By December, the Trump Foundation agreed to dissolve under court supervision due to this lawsuit.

The foundation was accused by the attorney general, Barbara Underwood, of “functioning as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests,” and of engaging in “a shocking pattern of illegality” that included unlawfully coordinating with Mr. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

In addition to shuttering the charity, her office has pursued a lawsuit that could bar President Trump and his three oldest children from the boards of other New York charities, as well as force the payment of millions in restitution and penalties.

In the past, Trump had engaged in a scheme with jewelry stores to evade New York sales taxes:

Trump would go into the store with his wife, his girlfriend, his...whatever (to use his vernacular). He would then buy her an expensive necklace or wristwatch. Normally, such a transaction would face the New York city and state sales tax, which would be pretty high on luxury jewelry.

In an illegal attempt to evade the tax, Trump "asked" the store to instead ship the jewelry to an out of state location, where no New York sales tax could be collected. In fact, the store would merely send an empty jewelry box to the location, while Trump and his lady friends walked out the door with the jewelry that very day.

The state and city tax collectors eventually caught onto this scheme, and Trump promptly testified against his erstwhile tax evasion colluding partners at the jewelry store in order to save his own skin.

In short - it is of legal interest to the prosecuting team of New York State suing him for tax evasion as well as showing proven evidence of a historical pattern of tax fraud.


This answer presumes that the returns contain nothing politically damaging to Trump.

In this case, refusing ignites his opposition and gets them focused on getting the returns publicized. They begin to speculate about what is in them, and spend a whole lot of time an energy on them.

Then when he decides that he has wasted enough of his opposition's time and energy, he releases them, and it's a nothingburger, and he catches his opposition flat-footed.

It's an added bonus if his 2020 opponent stakes his/her credibility on there being something illicit in those returns, and loses face when this turns out not to be the case.

(The fact that the 2016 election cycle went by without someone in the IRS anonymously leaking them leads me to believe that there is nothing at all damaging to Trump in his returns.)

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    Also, it doesn't answer the question. The question is not why Trump might not have shared his tax returns, it's why the fact that he hasn't is important
    – divibisan
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 14:31
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    Not only do the above comments apply, if he HAD been doing something like this, the time to release the tax returns would have been last year :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 1:55
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    I disagree. I think this is a viable take on why Trump might be holding his taxes back. If we recall the debacle around Obama's birth certificate it played out much the same way (with Trump on the side screaming for disclosure). When it was released it was sad trombone for the Republicans and it made the entire party look bad.
    – par
    Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 17:02

Existing answers are missing the point by mentioning that Trump is breaking his promises and lying... All politicians lie and break promises.

Reason is simple:

Trump and Democrats(including their media alies) agree that releasing them would be bad for Trump.

note: this does not mean that he did anything illegal, or even immoral, but presumably there is something in there that could be used against him in 2020 general election.

  • This doesn't answer the question. The question is not why Trump might not have shared his tax returns, it's why the fact that he hasn't is important
    – divibisan
    Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 21:29
  • Well it is obvious: Trump wants to win in 2020, Democrats want to win in 2020 Commented Oct 11, 2019 at 22:20
  • Even if we accept the premise that "all politicians lie and break promises", that does not mean it is not a big deal when they do so. George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 election largely because he broke his promise not to raise taxes. Commented Jun 6, 2021 at 0:34

Because any tax return as complicated as Trump's must be, has things in it that can be taken out of context, politicized, and made to sound awful.

For instance, business owners often take large enough losses in some years that they don't have any Federal tax liability in those years. Suppose Trump has done this. It's perfectly legal, but it could lead to some ugly headlines ("Billionaire Trump paid no income tax in six of the last 20 years" or whatever.)

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    Such information would expose how the tax system is biased in favour of wealthy individuals, which would be a major talking point for reformers.
    – Jontia
    Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 22:22
  • This answer should not be deleted. People should be able to see the vote count.
    – phoog
    Commented Oct 31, 2019 at 14:21

A lot of never-trump think it is a big deal, because they think trump cheated on his taxes.

A lot of politicians think it is a big deal, because they hope the never trump guys are right.

Trump thinks it is a big deal because he is hiding something. Not something illegal (as he has been audited many times).

What he is hiding is painfully obvious: Trump isn't nearly as rich as he claims to be.

No multi-billionaire would waste his time, doing silly TV shows, renting his name out to real estate projects, or running nonsensical get-rich-now classes (at a technically legal trump university, technicallybecause there is no legal requirement to use the word university)

  • Comments deleted. Please keep comments relevant to the question about Trump's tax returns. This is not the place to discuss the whole spectrum of Trump's policies as a president.
    – Philipp
    Commented Oct 10, 2019 at 8:34

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