In the last few weeks, we’ve heard President Donald Trump say repeatedly that he is “the most transparent president in history.” The irony, of course, is that he has said this while explaining why he won’t comply with what appear to be lawful congressional subpoenas for the very item that makes his bold claim mute: his tax returns.
While every president since Richard Nixon has annually publicly released their tax information, Trump has gone to extreme lengths to keep them locked up. Despite promising again and again on the campaign trail that he would release them after he was audited — an excuse tax experts have said did not prevent him from doing do — he will likely not comply with presidential norms unless he is forced to by a court order.
The only thing more disappointing than Trump’s lack of transparency is those in the Republican Party who balk at efforts to legislatively get them.
It is hard to fathom why anyone would think it’s a good idea for politicians of any political stripe to conceal their financial information. We have the right to know how much the president pays in taxes. We have the right to know whether a state’s governor has foreign bank accounts or pays taxes to governments abroad. We have the right to know if members of Congress or state legislatures craft legislation that would financially benefit them or their assets.
In the age of globalization, where politicians can fill offshore bank accounts to avoid paying their fair share in taxes, and in the age of dark money, where the line between politics and wealthy donors is badly blurred, pressuring our elected representatives to be transparent with their tax information is a way to avoid corruption and produce somewhat more honest lawmakers.
Indeed, the practice of releasing presidential tax returns only started with Nixon because it was discovered he was vastly underpaying Uncle Sam. Since then, many other public officials annually release their tax information because we ask for it, as we should.
President Trump should not be the main target in this whole conversation. But he is the wealthiest man ever elected president, he was a rich business tycoon before being president, and he would rather spend time and money on attorneys and legal fees to keep anyone from seeing his financial information while insisting he has nothing to hide.
That is why states like New York have begun taking measures into their own hands. The Democratic-controlled state Legislature in Albany passed bills in the last few weeks that would require the state’s tax commissioner to provide Congress with the state tax returns of any federal, state or local elected official if requested by either of three committees: the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee or the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Republican opponents of these measures call the effort purely political and one that sets a dangerous precedent for governmental invasion of one’s privacy. There’s no question the Democrats’ move here is political. But by including the state’s other elected officials and not just the presidency, it’s a move that is more transparent than Trump’s.
And on the argument of privacy, this isn’t about the privacy of just anyone. This is the president of the United States, the most powerful person in the world.
Losing one’s privacy comes with public service. That should be widely understood. And by strictly keeping to elected officials, these bills don’t mean Congress will have the ability to weed through anyone’s tax information willy-nilly. This is not about prowling into private citizens’ private affairs. This is about keeping those in power accountable.
It all goes back to the simple, almost cliched way of thinking: What does he have to hide?
That very same question was once asked by Donald Trump when it came to the issue of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Spawned by a conspiracy theory that somehow Trump’s predecessor wasn’t legally born in the United States, Trump became a leader in the so-called “birther movement” in demanding Obama release his birth certificate. And when he wouldn’t, Trump asked, What does he have to hide?
The only difference is Obama released his birth certificate. And there was nothing controversial about it. Years later, Trump’s taxes remain undisclosed.
The most transparent president in history? Oh, the irony.
Luke Parsnow is a digital content producer at Spectrum News CNY and an award-winning columnist at The Syracuse New Times in Syracuse, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” online and follow his updates on Twitter.