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Trump's Taxes Must be Released Before Tax Reform

It'll turn into 'the art of the steal' unless we know what taxes he pays and what breaks he uses.

President Donald Trump (Photo: Nicholas Kamm, AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump (Photo: Nicholas Kamm, AFP/Getty Images)

Many of us will fork over up to a third of our income to pay federal taxes this year and as much as half of our income in federal, state and local taxes combined.

We only ask a few things in return.

First, a government that spends our money wisely and does not succumb to government contractors and others who use campaign contributions and lobbyists to get a portion of our money that they should not have. Second, a government that is responsive to the interests of the American people rather than to the special interests, including companies in which public officials have investments or other relationships. Third, a government that is transparent and open so we know what the government is doing and what financial and other conflicts of interests government officials might have.

The Trump administration and Congress are falling short in all three areas.

First, wasteful spending by big government continues, with enormous proposed increases in defense spending sure to benefit defense contractors whether or not the spending improves our national security. The military industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned against in 1961 now has more influence than ever before, thanks to campaign money. Then there is the “big beautiful wall” that will cost billions of dollars, that we are told Mexico will pay for, but that we know full well will be our financial responsibility.


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Second, conflicts of interest are worse than ever under Trump. The president continues to receive payments and benefits from foreign governments (emoluments) in violation of the Constitution, and Congress has thus far done nothing to stop him. Trump also says that, “the president cannot have a conflict of interest” a statement which simply is not true. And meanwhile the cesspool of campaign finance bubbles unabated with the long-time general in the war against campaign finance reform, Don McGahn, having been installed as White House counsel.

Third, there is no transparency, starting at the top. For the first time in recent memory, the president has refused to release his tax returns. We know from a document sent to the New York Times that in 1995 he had a $916 million tax loss carry forward from real estate that would have allowed him to avoid paying any tax for years. We know from a leaked 2015 return that he would have paid very little of his income in tax that year but for the alternative minimum tax (AMT) that he wants to abolish. And that’s it.

At a minimum, before this administration even thinks of proposing any changes to the tax code, we should see what tax code provisions the president himself has been and is taking advantage of, and how much tax he has paid in the past few years. Otherwise we are bound to end up with a deal where the rest of us pay yet more tax while he, and probably his business partners and political allies, pay less.

The “art of the deal” for him, perhaps, but for the rest of us it’s the “art of the steal.”

We should not have to pay taxes for a government that ignores our interests and prioritizes instead the interests of our political leaders and the elites who support them. Unless things change soon, the American people may confront Trump with another tea party where they toss his ideas about "tax reform" and the rest of his agenda right into the harbor.

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Norman Eisen

Norman Eisen

Norman Eisen is chairman and co-founder of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as chief ethics lawyer for President Obama and later as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic.

Richard Painter

Richard Painter is vice chairman of CREW and a professor at the University of Minnesota Law School. He served as chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush.

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