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For the past 40 years, every U.S. presidential candidate from a major party has released their tax returns. It’s not required by law, but voters have come to expect it. Donald Trump has refused to disclose his tax information. His campaign chief reiterated last week that the candidate would not be releasing his returns. Calls for the Republican nominee to do so have grown stronger recently. On Monday, billionaire businessman Warren Buffet announced he’d disclose his income tax records if Trump did and offered to meet with the candidate any time before the election to answer questions from the public about them. Join Diane and guests for a discussion on the tradition of personal tax disclosure by presidential candidates – and what’s at stake.
- Richard Rubin U.S. tax policy reporter, The Wall Street Journal
- Joseph Thorndike Director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, a nonprofit provider of tax news and analysis
- Stephen Moore Chief economist, The Heritage Foundation; senior economic adviser to the Trump campaign
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. It's not required for a presidential candidate to release his or her tax returns, but every major party presidential candidate has done so since 1976, except for Donald Trump. As recently as last week, the Trump campaign said the GOP nominee would not be disclosing his tax filings.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me to talk about the significance of Trump's refusal and whether the public has a right to the information, Richard Rubin of The Wall Street Journal and Joseph Thorndike of the Tax History Project, and organization called Tax Analysis. Joining us a little later in the hour will be Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation. He's an advisor to the Trump campaign. And of course, as always, you are welcome to be part of the program.
MS. DIANE REHMGive us a call at 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Let us know whether you think Donald Trump's tax returns should be released and are important for the public to know or not. Welcome to all of you.
MR. RICHARD RUBINGreat to be here, Diane.
MR. JOSEPH THORNDIKEGood morning.
REHMRichard Rubin, what has Donald Trump actually said about his tax returns?
RUBINSo he's said a lot. He's offered several shifting rationales for why he hasn't released them. The most consistent of which has really been this idea that he's under audit for some past years and he won't release them until the audit is complete and so that's something he's come back to. He's also said that you don't learn much from tax returns, that tax returns don't give a full picture of someone's wealth and that the public isn't really interested.
RUBINSo he's offered a variety of reasons why he hasn't done this.
REHMAnd what about tax returns not under audit?
RUBINSo he put out a letter from his tax lawyers a few months ago and that letter says, look, there are returns from tax years 2002 through 2008 that were audited. Those audits are complete, but that those -- the issues in those audits are linked to issues in the audits that are ongoing now, as is completely reasonable and completely expected for someone with the kind of business transactions that go over multiple years.
RUBINThe fact that they are looking transactions that cross multiple years or tax issues that cross multiple years is not surprising at all.
RUBINBut that's the reason he's given.
REHMOkay. And to you, Joseph Thorndike, are we talking here exclusively about corporate tax returns or personal tax returns?
THORNDIKENo, we're really talking about personal tax returns and in Donald Trump's case, the personal is the business. So many of his businesses seem to be structured with him sort of as the centerpiece, that his personal returns are really crucial to understanding what his business is all about, what his, you know, what his fortune is all about. So and it's personal returns that we have the precedent on for president releases or nominee releases. These are the returns that have been released for 40 years.
REHMSo are there any other presidential candidates who've said, no, I won’t do that and then have been sort of pressured to do that?
THORNDIKEOh, yes. So, you know, releasing returns is unpleasant, right? Nobody wants to do it. There's a reason why you and I don't walk outside on Connecticut Avenue and post our tax returns. It's...
REHMBut I'm not running for president.
THORNDIKEBut you're not running for president. And so many candidates, over the decades, have dragged their feet about this and notably, Ronald Reagan really did not want to release his returns, really dug in his heels about it and eventually gave in after the convention and released his returns. And, you know, we all know Mitt Romney dragged his heels about it as well. It's not uncommon for candidates to resist it, but no one has ever successfully resisted it.
REHMAnd no one has resisted it as long as the convention itself?
THORNDIKENo, Reagan made it past the convention, but basically...
THORNDIKE...promised at the convention that he would release them and he did just shortly afterwards.
REHMWhy do you or do you think it's important for a nominee to release tax returns?
THORNDIKEWell, I mean, this is really the heart of the issue, right, because it is a privacy sacrifice. But I think, you know, I'm a historian so I like to argue from precedent and from historical experience. And I would say Richard Nixon is the reason that we should release returns or the nominee should release returns.
REHMTell me about that.
THORNDIKESo Nixon got himself into some trouble with his taxes. It turned out that he took this huge deduction for the donation of his vice presidential official papers to the national archives. It seems kind of crazy now because we think of that as public material produced on the public dime by public employees, but back in the day, it was completely legitimate for federal officials to donate these papers and take a tax deduction for it. So he did that. You know, behind the scenes, nobody knew about it, took a big deduction.
THORNDIKEIt actually came out that he had done this in a law suit, an unrelated law suit. And The Washington Post picked up on it and reported on it and this sort of started the ball rolling where people were saying, what is going on with the president's taxes. And I mean, it's a long story. I could tell at great length, but the long and the short of it is that as this information leaked out, Nixon found himself in more and more hot water about it.
THORNDIKEHis famous, you know, "I am not crook" statement was not about Watergate. It was actually about his personal finances and his taxes, in particular. And so eventually, he started this tradition of release because he felt like he had no choice. He was in, you know, under all this pressure and he said, you know, finally, I think that I'll be better off if I just release this stuff and let the chips fall as they may.
REHMAnd where did the chips fall?
THORNDIKEWell, I mean, you know, meanwhile Watergate is happening and Watergate actually does him in, but people, at the time, thought that his tax behavior was perhaps serious enough to force him from office. The chairman of the House ways and means committee suggest that possibility. You know, they did a -- the joint committee on taxation did an audit of the returns, you know, in private, but eventually released their report publically.
THORNDIKEAnd they found that the president had played quite fast and loose with the revenue laws and actually owed about $450,000, which is now more like $3 million in today's money. It was about half of Nixon's net worth. So he, you know, he made some big mistakes. Now, they didn't find any, you know, they made no finding of fraud. The IRS made no finding of fraud. The IRS audited him multiple times during this period.
THORNDIKEBut, you know, it did not go well for him. It turned out that he had made some significant errors, whether deliberate or not.
REHMRichard Rubin, you've been following tax policy for quite awhile. Give us a sense of what Donald Trump might be going through in an audit process.
RUBINYeah. So this audit is, you know, likely done out of what is known as the large business and international division at the IRS, which handles these kinds of complex entities. You know, Joe talked about the business being the same as the personal and that's right. I mean, most of his businesses are partnerships so his 1040 would sit at the top of the return and then each of his businesses would have its own return that all flows into that top line return on the 1040.
RUBINAnd so the -- what the audit would -- we don't know what the audit is looking at, but it could be looking at some or all of those entities and trying to figure out if they reported income correctly, if they did depreciation deductions correctly, which is a big issue in real estate, what other deductions he might have taken, all -- anything that could be in there. Is there income that wasn't reported that should've been reported? Are there losses? Like, any -- all of those things would come up in an audit.
RUBINAnd so we don't know exactly what's in there, but given the scope of his businesses both in the U.S. and his brand new businesses around the world. You can imagine it's a pretty complex process.
REHMHave you had an opportunity to talk directly with him about these audits?
RUBINNo. I've not. When I talked to him back in May, I said I'd look forward to talking to him about that, but that has not happened yet. He said a bunch about it and his lawyer's letter, I think, is the clearest explanation of what's going on. You know, the tax lawyers I've talked to, you know, for you and me, right, and audit would be relatively simple. You have some wage income, like did you over-report your charitable deductions? Did you -- if you have a business on the side, did you deduct too much for your home office?
RUBINThey're pretty ordinary and they don't take that long. For someone like this, they would take awhile and so the...
RUBINYeah, the tax lawyers I talked to said the fact that it's been open since 2009 and is -- all those years have been audited, it's not common, but it's not unheard of.
REHMAnd he has, himself, said I don't understand why I'm being audited year after year after year.
RUBINHe knows why he's being audited year after year after year.
REHMWell, what's the answer?
RUBINI don't know the answer. You know, that's a conversation that his lawyers and the IRS have had. But this is not a, you know, mailbox kind of thing where he gets a letter in the mail that says you're being audited, we'll be back to you later. They know what issues are in play, especially since they're done with issue in those years that are closed, from 2002 through 2008. Now, he doesn't know what the IRS selection process is, right? The IRS has its own formula for deciding who gets audited.
RUBINThe IRS says that's not based on your political views. At one point, Trump said that he thought he was being audited because he was a strong Christian. The IRS says they don't do that. They don't look at your religious views or any other views when they decide who to audit.
REHMRichard Rubin, he's U.S. tax policy reporter for The Wall Street Journal. We are going to be taking your calls, comments, 800-433-8850. Stay with us.
REHMWelcome back. We're talking about Donald Trump's taxes and whether he should disclose them to the public. There's been a lot of talk about what he has paid in the past, what the audit that's going on now or has just been completed might tell us. Here's an email from Jeremy in Cincinnati, Ohio.
REHMHe says, "Although, I think Americans do not have the right to see Trump's tax returns, its release would be a measure of Trump's honesty. He made an issue of Tim Kaine receiving gifts as governor of Virginia. Kaine disclosed those gifts at the time." What do we know, Richard Rubin, about Trump's past tax returns that have been made public?
RUBINSo none of his actual returns have been made public, but there are documents that the New Jersey Casino Regulators have made public that give some indications. So those documents show that for a couple of years in the late 1970s, he had negative income and didn't pay federal taxes.
RUBINAnd, but again, that was before the 1986 Tax Reform Act, so it was a lot easier for wealthy people to do that then. They show that in the -- by the -- in the early 1990s he had losses, net losses. So we know that. But we also know that from other reporting that Trump's finances were not in a particularly good place in the early '90s. What we don't have is a lot of great information about what's happened since then, what his finances look like as he's become more successful.
RUBINThe period he was on "The Apprentice," etcetera. We have a few clues, though. We know that he and his company have fought -- aggressively fought property taxes. So that's an indication of how he approaches taxes. He said he tries to pay as little tax as possible, which, I mean, we all do. And we know he's taken a few large charitable deductions. The biggest one that we've got a number on is a $39 million deduction from 2005, which he made for donating the development rights on a golf course in New Jersey.
RUBINBasically, he promised to not build houses on the land that has the golf course on it and you can take that $39 million deduction for that. We could do a whole separate show about that.
REHMI don't understand that.
RUBINNo, you can. Basically, it's a -- the diminished value of the golf course. So -- but you wouldn't do that, you wouldn't make that kind of donation if you didn't have income to subtract it from. So that, at least is -- and he made similar donations that we don't know the amounts in 2014 and 2015. So to me those are clues that there are some significant income that he's trying to offset with deductions. But we don't know.
RUBINAnd we also know, broadly, about real estate. Right? In real estate you borrow and get interest deductions. And in real estate you get big depreciation deductions. And you don't really earn the big income unless you sell. And you don't always have to sell because you can do what's called a tax-free exchange.
RUBINIf I get rid of one property and get a new one and I'm in real estate, I can do what's known as a 1031, for the tax section -- tax code section, exchange and not realize those gains. Essentially, defer those gains. So it's -- from the tax lawyers I've talked to, they say, look, it's not uncommon for real estate professionals for their, like, their real economic income and their income reported on their tax returns to look very different.
REHMI guess what the public is asking, and we've already gotten lots of calls saying this, is what's he hiding? What do you think he might be hiding, Joe?
THORNDIKEYou know, I don't know that he's necessarily hiding anything. I mean, he could be hiding his personal finances the way we all hide our personal finances. And there's a strong incentive to not disclose that information. I completely understand that. So let me say to that point I'm sympathetic with Donald Trump. But I think, you know, the problem here -- the caller asked, you know, asked -- really posed the question, do we have the right as citizens to see these things.
THORNDIKEAnd I think the answer is no, if rights are defined in legal terms. But there's a moral right that I think has developed over the decades, when we have 40 years of candidates from both parties, not just nominees, but also a lot of primary candidates as well, for the presidency, who've released these returns voluntarily, sometimes reluctantly, but always voluntarily. I think that carries real moral weight.
THORNDIKESo no, we don't have a right to these, but I do think that we, we can expect it from them in moral terms. And I think the -- one of the best reasons to do it if you're a candidate, is that it prevents the kind of speculation that we're involved in right now. We have no choice. All we can do is speculate. What's he hiding? And it raises that hiding question. I would not be at all surprised if he is hiding nothing, other than, you know, things he just doesn't feel inclined to disclose.
THORNDIKEMaybe his net worth is lower than it looks like and the tax returns might suggest that. Or maybe he's very aggressive in the way that he minimizes his taxes. And I think that's actually sort of the crucial civic issue for us. But all we can do is speculate. I think the speculation is harmful to the candidate and it's harmful to the whole process.
REHMHow do you react to that, Richard?
RUBINI think that's right. I think what we're -- in the sense that, what we're doing is engaging in this game of speculation. We have these bits of information that I just went through, here's what we know about real estate professionals, here's what we know about his returns from 1993, here's what we know about his donations. And you just try and piece together a picture, but we don't know. I'm not gonna take a side on whether he should or shouldn't. But, you know, this is -- yeah, we're in this game of trying to figure out what could be happening here.
REHMRight. What about Hillary Clinton? Has she already released her tax returns, Richard?
RUBINYes. The Clintons have released returns going back several decades. You know, of course, you know, he ran for president in 1992. And so they put out a bunch of returns then. And people found issues and problems with them at the time. Their more recent returns, she's released everything through 2014. The 2015 return, if she's on an extension, which is common for higher-income people, she wouldn't have to file until October. So we haven't seen her most, most recent return.
REHMWhat did we learn from them?
RUBINWhat we've learned, you know, the recent years is they've made a lot of money. They made a lot of money from speeches. They made a lot of money from consulting.
RUBINFrom books. And because all that is ordinary income that they've taken as cash, they pay a pretty significant tax rate.
REHMWhat do we know, for example, about charitable giving?
RUBINThe Clintons have given to charity. They're often doing so through, you know, with The Clinton Foundation is their main thing, but they've also given to other charities as well. I don't have the numbers on the tip of my fingers about exactly what they've given. But those are all -- Joe should talk about this, 'cause Joe maintains a website where you can go look at everybody's returns. So he can -- callers and listeners can absolutely go -- give them the web address, you know exactly where it is.
THORNDIKEIt's true. It's at taxhistory.org. And we have, over the years, sort of compiled all these released returns, which have a tendency to get released and then disappear into the ether to some extent. They're often released to new organizations that don't always publish the actual returns. And part of what I think is important is making the actual returns publicly available. You know, as people have suggested that this is a sort of crowdsourced audit. And I think that's right.
THORNDIKEAnd that's why they don't want to release the returns because it is absolutely true that if you're under audit, the last thing you want is, you know, 300 million people giving the IRS good ideas about what they should investigate. And, again, to go back to Nixon, he's a perfect case in point. The news organizations went out and dug up little pieces of information, and they gave the IRS ideas. And eventually those ideas cost Nixon half a million dollars.
THORNDIKESo there's a good reason why if you're a taxpayer being crowdsourced and your audit is very unpleasant. But it's also why it's so important for us, especially if a candidate has such a complex return. Some -- one reporter this week called me and said wouldn't it be misleading to release this monster return. No one would actually know anything about it. They couldn't understand it. I said the world is full of really smart tax lawyers just dying to look this over. And they will do their own audit. That would be good for everyone, except perhaps for the candidate.
REHMSo, Rich, just to go back to the very last time that Donald Trump did release his tax returns, I think it goes back to 1981, you wrote?
RUBINYou know, he's never released…
REHMIs that about right?
RUBIN…returns. What we've seen basically are these casino -- documents from casino regulators…
RUBIN…in New Jersey that summarize his returns.
REHMAnd it revealed that for at least two years in the late 1970s he had taken advantage of tax code provisions that allowed him to report negative income, which mean he paid zero taxes.
RUBINRight. Which means he paid zero net taxes. Now, that's a -- in part, you can do that if you're actually losing money. But you can also do that if you are -- it's a very common thing in the real estate world to have, like I describe before, you have -- you deduct your interest, you deduct depreciation on buildings and you're receiving, you know, rental income, you're paying out maintenance costs and salaries.
RUBINAnd that all nets out to negative, but at the same time the value -- the key is really the depreciation. Because the -- you're depreciating the building, but if you have a building in a really good place, the value of that building is increasing. And that increasing value, right, just like the increasing value of your house or my house, you don't pay taxes on that increasing value each year, only when you sell it. And so that's the real benefit of being in real estate, is you have -- you're sitting on an asset that's appreciating, and your income is sort of off to the side of that.
REHMAll right. So let's say all of a sudden Donald Trump released his tax records to you. What would be the first things you'd look for?
RUBINThe first two things I'd look for are his adjusted gross income, sort of straight up, like, look at the bottom of the first page of the 1040, like what was his income. And then I'd look and see what his charitable deductions were. Those are the first two things I'd look at.
REHMWhy are the charitable deductions so important?
RUBIN'Cause they give us -- because he's made all sorts of claims about his -- how charitable he is and their -- and a lot of that is actually kind of hard to verify. So you'd actually get some picture of what he's done and what he's deducted. So those are the first two places I'd look. And then, boy, I don't know. I mean, he's put out these pictures of himself with the returns, which is, you know, above his head. So there'd be a lot to go through. And then (unintelligible) I'd call a bunch of tax lawyers.
THORNDIKEBut let me, let me raise a problem here, too. Which is that you're talking about what you'd look for if you actually got the whole return. And one thing that we saw this year was that a number of candidates chose to release just the form 1040 and call it a release, which is really not useful. I mean, we learned a little bit, like, you know, their average tax rate and things like that. But we don't find out very much at all about how they conduct themselves in the financial term. So Donald Trump might just release his 1040. That would be next to useless, as far as I'm concerned.
REHMSo, Joe, how important do you think the disclosure of tax returns is to a candidate running for president?
THORNDIKEWell, I think that -- a year ago a reporter asked me that question, I said, hey, you know what? Every serious candidate will eventually release their returns. It's just -- you can't resist it. And I think Donald Trump may in fact prove me wrong on that. But I just -- I believe that what we can find is we can sense of how they conduct themselves. So, you know, lots of the tax law is sort of grey law, grey areas. This is true even for the two of us. Like, let's say that we claim a home office deduction…
REHMHow about the three of us?
THORNDIKEThe three of us.
THORNDIKEYou know, what if we claim a home office deduction. Lots of people do that. The IRS has pretty clear rules about that. And sometimes they disallow it. You make a claim, you can't really support it, they disallow it. Well, magnify that by several hundreds of thousands of times in both the size of the deductions and the complexity of them. And that's what you have going on. And there are times when a taxpayer can take a very aggressive position with the IRS, very hard to support, very unlikely to be sustained.
THORNDIKEWe want to know if the president of the United States, the chief tax enforcement officer of the United States is paying his own taxes in those terms. That's different.
REHMJoseph Thorndike, he's director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts, that's a non-profit provider of tax news and analysis. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We are waiting for Steve Moore, chief economist at The Heritage Foundation and senior economic advisor to the Trump campaign to join us. In the meantime, let's take a caller her from Shelter Island, N.Y. Good morning, Tom. You're on the air.
TOMGood morning, Diane. Thanks for your show. I just have a question. It seems to me like Donald Trump is battling negatives on all fronts. And if he purports to support the heart of America that who are, you know, ostensibly tax payers that pay their taxes on time, like I do, why doesn't his campaign think that this is a huge negative for him not to release it? He's battling negative points everywhere. This would be one way, perhaps, of mitigating the storm that's enveloped him in the last few weeks. But, to me, who -- and I haven't voted Democrat, you know, for probably 40 years, it's just one more reason not to vote for this guy.
RUBINSo two things. One, is we have seen instances where candidates get pressured into releasing their returns. Mitt Romney in the Republican primaries in 2012. And Joe's probably more familiar with some previous examples. But Romney was getting hit by his opponents in debates for not releasing his returns. And eventually he said he'd put them out. He put one year out in January and a second year in September.
RUBINAnd what Trump has said is -- he points to what Romney did in September to say, look, he put those out and people wrote about them and that probably cost him the election. If you look at the polling numbers, Romney was actually up in September and early October and then, you know, after the first debate, and then started going down. It's -- I haven't seen much good evidence that it was the result of his release.
RUBINBut, yeah, I mean, to the caller's point, it's possible that if he's feeling pressure on this point that he would release and maybe someone in his campaign is telling him to. I have no idea. But this is a decision he's gonna have to make. And it's a decision that he might make if he feels threatened politically and he thinks this would help him. Clearly, he's made the calculation to this point that that's not the case.
THORNDIKEWell, I mean, I think, you know, in purely Machiavellian terms, there are up sides and down sides to this decision. And there's no easy one. And I think Mitt Romney gave it his best shot to not release anything. He thought, this is better for me if I don't. And eventually he decided the political cost of that was too high. Trying to game out how this would play out for Trump I think is very difficult. I think some of the possibilities are not damaging to him.
THORNDIKEIf he has a very low effective tax rate, even if he's paid zero taxes, I think he'd claim that as a win. And I think he's neutralized that argument for the most part. You know, I think the argument -- and again, we're back to the speculation, you know, is the tax return gonna show that he's not as rich as he says he is or something like that. That's hard to say. And I'm actually, ultimately, sort of uncomfortable in even discussing it in the terms of what's best politically.3
THORNDIKEI mean, that's interesting, but the issue here is really that it's not a question of political tactics or advantage. And this why I hate it when candidates challenge each other. And they say well, I'll release my returns when Hillary Clinton releases her speech transcripts. And I think Hillary Clinton should release speech transcripts, too. But it's not a quid pro quo. This is not a deal between candidates. This is a responsibility to the electorate.
REHMAll right. We'll take a short break here. When we come back we'll assume we have Stephen Moore with us, take more of your calls. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Joining us now by phone is Stephen Moore. He's Chief Economist at the Heritage Foundation and Senior Economic Advisor to the Trump Campaign. Stephen, I gather you were talking with people from the Trump campaign. Glad you can join us now. You strongly believe Donald Trump should not release his tax returns. Tell us why.
MR. STEPHEN MOOREHi Diane. Thanks again for having me.
MOOREAnd by the way, I have never actually talked to Donald Trump about this issue, so the opinions I'm going to express are truly my own and not those of Trump or the campaign.
MOOREBut I would simply say this, that I feel strongly that he should not release his tax returns and the reason for that is, you know, we have less than 100 days to the election. And every single day, the campaign needs to be focused on national security, the economy, putting people back in jobs. And it will be, first of all, his tax returns are thousands and thousands of pages. I mean, this is a businessman who makes, you know, has major businesses here and around the world.
MOOREAnd I think it will be complete distraction and I don't see anything good that could come out of it for Donald Trump to release his tax returns. There's going to be some things in thousands of pages of tax returns that people are going to glom onto. Especially the media, and that will, that will be the headlines. You know, Donald Trump did this or that in his tax return. And I just don't think it's -- as an advisor to Trump, I don't see a single positive thing that could come out of it.
MOORENow, people would say, I heard your previous guest saying, well, this is a responsibility. And voters want to know. And the truth is, if someone feels that it's so important that the Presidential candidate release their tax returns, then they probably won't vote for Donald Trump. They'll probably vote for Hillary, but most people don't really care about this. Most people want to have a discussion about the wreckage of our economy and what's happening around the world.
REHMOkay. Joe, do you agree with Steve that most people don't care.
THORNDIKEWell, no I don't. The only polling that I'm aware of on this was a Morning Consult poll that I think found 67 percent of Americans do think that he should release the returns. So, to me, that's a pretty significant majority. I do agree that, you know what, if we really think that these sorts of things should be released, we should make it a law.
THORNDIKEI don't like, you know, personally, I don't like being in the position of begging and pleading and cajoling and guilting. We'd all be better off if the lines were clearer and we simply required tax returns in the same way we require financial disclosure statements.
REHMSteve, Donald Trump has so many times blasted corporate America for using loopholes and deductions to reduce taxes. The question becomes for the American public, does he do the very thing that he accuses others of doing?
MOOREWell, I don't know, because I haven't seen his tax return. But you know, he's been actually pretty honest, I think, from the very start of this campaign of saying, look, I know how the system works. I know how it's rigged. I know how you get things done, and you know, how you make financial contributions to candidates if you want to do business. I mean, this is a guy who's built buildings in New York City. I mean, you can't do that without, you know, having political connections. And he's made the -- he says look, I know how the system is rigged, and therefore, I know how we can fix it.
MOOREAnd that's actually a strong, appealing line that people agree with, that, you know, someone who's been a businessman, who's had to deal with politicians his whole life, kind of knows where the corruption is. And he's going to root it out. Now, I wouldn't necessarily even favor a law requiring people to release their tax returns. And you know, if I were advising Trump on this particular issue, I'd say, look, make it very simple. When Hillary releases the 30,000 emails she erased, which are much more important than his tax return, then he'll release his tax return. And that might be a good quid pro quo.
REHMWhat do you think, Joe?
THORNDIKEWell, I'm just repeating myself, but I don't think that this is a deal between candidates. I think it's a deal between the candidate and the public. But...
MOOREBut don't see the -- I don't see the media hounding Hillary about releasing all the emails that she's erased. And that's a much bigger concern for Americans and our security than Donald Trump's tax return, for goodness sakes.
THORNDIKEI actually don't have an opinion on that particular issue, except to say that I'm in favor of release of information, in general. And in favor of transparency. So I think that's great. If she can release the erased emails, then all to the better.
MOOREI don't think that's going to happen.
REHMAll right. Let's go to Ethan in Brooklyn, New York. You're on the air.
ETHANHi. Good morning, Diane.
ETHANThank you very much for taking my call.
ETHANI'm a big fan. Listen, I just wanted to say in response to, especially to the Heritage Foundation guest, this is extremely important. And it's extremely important because this guy's entire candidacy is predicated on his statement that he's an incredible businessman, an incredibly successful businessman and an incredibly wealthy man. We do not know if that is true. I suspect it is not. He has had a very clear and consistent record over the last 14 months of lying and being caught in his lies.
ETHANAnd I suspect that his entire persona of being incredibly successful and incredibly wealthy is another lie. And the only way for him to disprove what I'm saying is to release those tax returns.
REHMRich. Do you want to comment?
RUBINYeah, so, look, the -- there have been some independent estimates of his wealth based on what we know publicly from real estate holdings and what he's disclosed on the federal forms. And, you know, the best ones -- I was part of one -- my previous employment at Bloomberg and it was, you know, pegged it at around $3 billion. Which is not the 10 billion, or more than 10 billion that he claims, but that's -- I think the best number to kind of go with, but of course, we don't know what we don't know.
RUBINSo, there's certainly, we'd certainly learn more about his financial picture if we saw his tax returns than we know now.
REHMJoe, how important is it that we know how wealthy or not he is?
THORNDIKEI actually don't find that to be the most interesting question, except to the extent that Trump has opened the door to that question. And so, I mean, you know, one, one thing that people like to do with tax returns is sort of compare them to what the state -- the candidate has said. And if the candidate says, I think that the tax deduction for carried interest, the special treatment for carried interest income is wrong and then they, you know, took advantage of that in their taxes, personally, I have no problem with that.
THORNDIKEI mean, I think you minimize your taxes, I minimize my taxes, everybody does as much as we legally can. So, I'm less interested in sort of getting -- catching people out on being hypocritical, but I do think that, you know, when Trump has made his personal wealth so central to his campaign appeal, it really does open the door and invite these sorts of questions.
REHMWhat do you think, Steve?
MOOREBut I would say this, that the -- we, look, I don't know what Donald Trump's wealth is or his income is a year. I don't think anybody knows the exact number, although you can go to Forbes. They have some, you know, wealth rankings and so on. But to say that, look, it's preposterous, frankly, to say that this is not a successful businessman. I mean, here is -- you just look at the buildings and the incredible empire that he has built. He has created one of the great brands in the world in Trump.
MOOREAnd you see every major city you go to, you see Trump Towers and it is a sign of excellence. And you see the tens of thousands of people that he's employed verses virtually none for Hillary Clinton outside of politics. I mean, I think that's a very strong selling point for Donald Trump.
MOOREAnd I don't think very many Americans think that this is not a great, great, great, iconic businessman.
THORNDIKEWell, and that's why I say that I don't think that the real question here is how rich is Donald Trump and what can the tax returns tell us? I think the real question here is his tax behavior. Because we do have an interest, as fellow tax payers in knowing how someone conducts themselves. And so, for instance, to go back to Nixon, what he did was not completely illegal. I mean, in the sense that he didn't, you know, fail to report income that he had clearly received. What he did was he took very aggressive deductions, which were ultimately unsupportable.
THORNDIKEAnd that's the kind of behavior that we do have a vested interest in knowing about.
REHMAll right, let's take another caller in Toledo, Ohio. Sarah, you're on the air.
SARAHGood morning, everyone. I'm speaking to Steve Moore's earlier comment about Trump and having greater details to tend to than his taxes and submitting his information. And I would say, if he is elected President, that is a part of national security interest to the American people, because he's presiding over our fiscal situation. Furthermore, with regard to his iconography, I would say it's more akin to the Kardashian brand than something of substance.
REHMAll right. Steve Moore.
MOOREWell, look, I think, I think -- for people who don't like Donald Trump, and there are a lot, you know, they're, you know, using this as a kind of an issue to undermine his credibility. And if people really feel strongly about it, they're probably not going to vote for him, and I would say to Donald Trump, look, 98 percent of the people really, really care about this, people probably aren't going to vote for you in the first place. And I just don't see anything to be gained politically, for him, to have three or four or five days.
MOOREI mean, you know the way the media is. They're going to focus on this tax return, no matter what's in the tax return. And it's gonna be -- it is going to be a distraction. And I’m so, you know, irate right now, and Donald Trump has brought a lot of these problems on himself. You know, we haven't had a debate for the last five days about the economy, about jobs, about national security, the issues that he has such a huge advantage on. Because all of these distractions.
MOORELike, he, he, you know, the whole issue with Khan and, you know, the dispute with Paul Ryan. And look, he's brought this upon himself. My point is, he will win this election, I've told them this 100 times, if you just talk about the economy and jobs, we have such a huge advantage over Hillary, because she has no agenda at all, other than Obama, you will win. So why distract the voters for six or seven days with your tax return?
REHMAll right. Rich.
RUBINYeah, two things about what happens if he becomes President. One thing that's important to know is the IRS Commissioner's term ends in November, 2017, so the next President will get to nominate an IRS Commissioner. The second thing is, if one sure way to get audited every year is to become President. There's actually a provision in the internal revenue manual that says that the President's tax return is placed in a special orange folder and is audited every year. So, I'm not sure if Mr. Trump is aware of that, but he would be -- continuous audits actually happen not just to large businesses, but also to the President of the United States.
THORNDIKEWhich, which actually raises an interesting point, which is Trump says that he can't release his returns because they're under audit. And yet, every President releases his returns every year and they're all under audit, as Nixon was when he released his returns.
REHMSo, would the public, let's say that Trump were elected, would his tax returns then become public after an IRS audit?
THORNDIKENo. No. Presidents, just like all the rest of us, have the same protection of their tax returns. They release them voluntarily, the same way that candidates do. And I wonder if all the people who say they don't care if candidate Trump doesn't release would feel the same way if President Trump, you know, supervisor of the IRS, was also not releasing it. And it's also worth pointing out that the last time we really had anything going on here, the IRS, you know, audited Nixon's returns and they said, looks good to us. All fine. Turns out it wasn't so fine and they took a second look. So.
REHMAll right. And to Susan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. You're on the air.
SUSANHi Diane. Thank you for a great show.
SUSANMy comment/question is if Donald Trump has all of these businesses and activities, if he becomes President, what will he do to divorce himself from these activities, either to act as in favor of himself personally, or just to be preoccupied with them?
REHMGood question. Rich.
RUBINSo, there's two things worth knowing on that. One is that all of the usual conflict of interest and divestiture laws that apply to cabinet officials don't apply to the President. And second, that he's said that he would basically turn over management of his businesses -- I'm not sure what he said about ownership, but certainly management over to his kids. So that's what he said, and that's -- the, I don't know if Joe knows more about this, but that's -- the conflict of interest rules and like, cabinet officers have to sell assets, sometimes, in order to take office. And that's not the case with the President.
REHMAnd you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Joe, do you want to add to that?
THORNDIKEWell, I mean, most Presidents have sort of tried to find an elegant solution to this by just, you know, putting assets into a blind trust and letting somebody else do it and not knowing anything about it. So most Presidents try to push this away and be not at all involved in their personal finances while in office.
RUBINAnd if you look at...
REHMHold on, Steve. Go ahead, Rich.
RUBINYeah, and if you look at Obama's financial disclosures, I mean, what he's done, you know, obviously, he was not running a business, anything like Trump's before he went into office. So this is an unusual situation, but he's basically invested in US treasuries and a couple of index funds and, you know, he could be making a lot more money from his investments than he has been, and I think Bush was like this too, to some extent. For political reasons, you just sort of choose to put that aside.
RUBINTrump's a totally different thing.
REHMSteve, go ahead.
MOOREOh sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt. I was just going to make this point that, you know, one of the things that people ask me, you know, why do you support Donald Trump? And one of the things that really -- I find attractive about him, and I think this is true of most of his supporters, is precisely that he is such a successful businessman. And we need a businessman, someone with knowledge of how the world works and the economy works to run our country.
MOOREI think, and the problem with this whole discussion, you know, about all of these disclosures that have to be made and so on is I worry that if the disclosures and all these (unintelligible) rules are so difficult to comply with that we're not going to get some of the best people to run for office in the first place. And I wonder how the others feel about that.
THORNDIKEThat -- that's been an issue for a long time. You know, how do you compensate public servants for their time in office, when they're going to be sacrificing financially so much? I mean, you know, traditionally speaking, that hasn't been so hard. George Washington was willing to leave Mt. Vernon to take on the Presidency, so...
MOOREWell, but that's -- you know, I'm making a different point, though. Of course, someone like Donald Trump is going to make a financial sacrifice if they run for President. I'm making the point that, you know, if everyone is going to accuse a business -- all these complex -- of course, you know, Donald Trump probably is going to have conflicts of interest. He has so many business interests. And my point is that you're just not -- you're going to essentially disqualify people who are successful in business. Because everyone's going to accuse them of having conflicts of interest.
REHMAll right. Let me take this one last call. Andrew in Houston, Texas. You're on the air.
ANDREWThank you for taking my call, Diane. Great show.
ANDREWI don't understand how somebody -- this man has never held an office before and he actually run based on the fact that he's a successful businessman, which is okay. Now, he should release his tax returns so that people can see if he is such a great businessman, let's see what you're doing. The name Trump is overinflated. His name is worth so many billions of dollars. He's, he's, I mean, he should release his tax return. We need to know he's the tax enforcer of the country. I need to know what he's paying.
THORNDIKEWell, and we would find out something about what he was paying, and maybe not as much as we'd like to find out about his business. I mean, at the end of the day, this is -- the tax returns are not going to once and for all, answer how rich is Donald Trump or how great a businessman is he? But they will shed light on those issues. These are -- this is not a slam dunk. If you hate Donald Trump, this is not necessarily going to just win the election for you. But it's just one more piece of the picture. It's one more element of transparency that I think that we have a right to expect.
MOOREWell, again, I just -- I think it's a complete distraction, and, you know, if people want this information and they feel it's so important, then they, they have the right not to vote for Donald Trump. But again, we only have less than 100 days right now.
MOOREAnd I'm very worried about the distraction.
REHMSteve, do you think that ultimately, Donald Trump is going to release his tax returns?
MOOREYou know, I honestly don't know the answer to that, Diane. He's made statements that he will release the returns when it's audited. I have no idea what the, you know, what the status of that is. But, you know, as we get closer to the election, you know, I think the idea of like releasing your tax return two weeks before the election would be, you know, an ill-advised thing to do.
REHMAll right. We'll have to leave it there. Stephen Moore, Chief Economist at the Heritage Foundation. Senior Economic Advisor to the Trump campaign. Joseph Thorndike of the Tax History Project. Richard Rubin, US Tax Policy Reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Thank you all, and thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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