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What did releasing Trump’s tax returns accomplish?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Six years of Donald Trump’s tax returns were released to the public by the House Ways and Means Committee late last week, providing the public the most in-depth look at the former president’s sprawling business empire.

Trump fought to keep his financial records private for years, but the Democratic-run committee was ultimately able to obtain his returns after the Supreme Court declined to back Trump's efforts to block their release. Trump famously refused to release his tax returns during the 2016 presidential campaign, a step that every other major party candidate had voluntarily done for decades.

The committee released Trump’s personal and business returns from 2015 through 2020, a period that spanned the launch of his presidential run through all but the very end of his White House tenure. The thousands of pages included in the returns shed more detail on how Trump took advantage of complex provisions in the tax code to pay little or no taxes in several years. He also reported millions of dollars in losses in most years and earned income from investments in more than a dozen foreign countries including China, India and Mexico.

The broad strokes of Trump’s financial situation had already been partially revealed in a series of media reports, but the release provided information that hadn’t previously been known. Most notably, the committee showed that the Internal Revenue Service did not begin auditing Trump’s finances until his third year in office — revealing his main explanation for why he couldn’t release his returns to be a lie and raising questions about why the IRS didn’t follow its own rules that mandate annual audits of all presidents.

Why there’s debate

With no obvious “smoking guns” indicating clear illegal activity and the general picture of Trump’s finances already relatively well known, debate has sprung up about what value — if any — there was in releasing his returns to the public.

Supporters of the committee’s decision say it’s crucial for the American people to have a clear picture of Trump’s finances so they can understand how his massive business empire may have influenced his actions as president, and may do so again if he’s reelected. Some tax experts say the returns themselves include a number of questionable elements that could provide the first thread of possible criminal tax fraud once more time is taken to unravel Trump’s complex business ties. Others say that, regardless of what’s in the returns, the decision to release them sends a signal that no one can expect to keep their finances hidden if they want to seek the most powerful position in the nation.

Some political analysts also believe that the release could prompt Congress to pass legislation making financial disclosures a legal requirement for presidential candidates or inspire an inquiry into potential corruption within the IRS in how it handled Trump’s taxes.

Trump and his allies have heavily criticized the decision to release his returns, arguing that it’s nothing more than an attempt to harm him politically. That view is echoed by some political figures outside of the president’s former circle, who worry that the disclosure will set off a dangerous back and forth in which whatever party has control of Congress will release the financial information of their rivals purely out of spite.

What’s next

With Republicans taking over the House of Representatives this week, it’s all but certain that the Ways and Means Committee will not be seeking any more of Trump’s financial information in the near future. It remains to be seen whether Democrats in the Senate might take up the task or open any new inquiries in response to revelations from Trump’s returns.


There is nothing in the returns we didn’t already know

“Tax returns are supposed to be secret, and revealed only voluntarily. Reading tax returns forcibly extracted from any taxpayer made me feel dirty, and a little sad for the integrity of the tax system going forward. But there is no smoking gun here, nothing that will finally ‘get Trump.’” — Ryan Ellis, National Review

The returns are the first step in a much longer inquiry into Trump’s finances

“The income information included in that analysis also seems to support the assertion that Trump’s use of the presidency to steer business to himself from the government and those seeking to influence it. … Now that the detailed returns are available, we’ll learn much more about those companies’ earnings, losses, and tax payments, and about Trump’s financial interests.” — Noah Bookbinder, The Atlantic

The release could make tax returns another tool in America’s ugly partisan politics

“Among other things, posting Trump’s taxes seems likely to result in tit-for-tat posting of other people’s private tax returns. Will we soon be seeing Hunter Biden’s tax returns on the web? It’ll also give Republicans some basis for saying that, actually, it is Democrats who go low when others go high.” — Nicholas Goldberg, Los Angeles Times

The returns show how Trump put his own interests over those of the American people

“As more information about his finances surfaces … it will be a reminder of the extent to which the former president played a shell game with his wealth and business interests while in power — and what he might try to get away with again if he occupies the Oval Office in the future.” — Timothy L. O'Brien, Bloomberg

There was no reason to release Trump’s returns other than to harm him politically

“Mr. Trump appears to have hired legions of lawyers to exploit every possible loophole in the tax code. If Congress doesn’t like that, it can rewrite and simplify the code. … The actual point of the release is to embarrass Mr. Trump for refusing to release his returns.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Potential IRS corruption must be investigated thoroughly

“There's a growing mountain of circumstantial evidence suggesting that Trump used political pressure and strategic appointments of loyalists to block IRS auditors from doing their job. If that's the case, it would hardly be surprising, given Trump's track record. But it would mean that someone, somewhere, violated the law, possibly at Trump's behest.” — Editorial, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The committee didn’t release enough information to get a full picture of Trump’s finances

“The result is still unsatisfying. The returns don’t go back to Trump’s decades as a taxpayer before he ran for president in 2016 and won in a giant upset. … It’s an important principle to follow as a matter of historical record. It also would have been a warning shot to any future presidents who may want to keep their tax returns private.” — David Mark, NBC News

There is real evidence of potential criminality

“Don’t let the cynics who know little about our tax system trick you into thinking there was nothing all that new or important. … In fact, even if some of it was previously teased by the committee, the dump includes a cornucopia of information that affects your wallet — including powerful evidence of criminal tax evasion.” — David Cay Johnston, Daily Beast

Investigating Trump’s finances is important, but making the records public served no purpose

“The committee certainly had a valid reason to obtain and examine Trump’s returns. No quarrel there. But did they have a valid reason to publish his returns? I don’t think so.” — Chuck Rosenberg, Politico

Transparency is important, regardless of what is revealed

“The immense power of the presidency comes with immense potential for corruption. We need to know exactly where presidents get their income, whom they owe money to, and all the details of their finances.” — Paul Waldman, Washington Post

The huge losses reported by Trump undercut his aura as a successful businessman

“As an outsider candidate, part of Trump's appeal hinged on perceptions about his private sector acumen, earned through decades operating in New York's rough-and-tumble world of real estate. Friday's disclosures call into question his carefully-cultivated image as a savvy business magnate.” — Javier E. David, Axios

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Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Phelan M. Ebenhack for The Washington Post via Getty Images, Getty Images (2)