- - Wednesday, May 18, 2016


Donald Trump gets right to the point. When a reporter asked him about his tax returns he had a ready response: “It’s none of your business.” He’s right. There’s no law that says a president or a presidential candidate must release the private details of his tax returns. It’s become a convention for the last 30 years or so, but most presidents before Richard Nixon kept their tax issues private.

Some of Mr. Trump’s conservative critics have joined the din demanding that he disclose his returns. Mitt Romney even says the Donald’s refusal to release his tax details is “disqualifying.” Inquiring minds always want to know, of course, but there’s not necessarily a lot of good that would come from public inspection of the returns. He would be criticized for being too rich, not as rich as he says he is, contributing too little to church or charity, or taking questionable write-offs. It’s the gotcha game, and candidates rarely win the gotcha game.

Since he can’t win it, it’s understandable that he doesn’t want to play the game. If he has done something illegal, such as evading taxes or devising a tax scam, there’s no need to look to his tax returns for proof. The Internal Revenue Service has already done that, and if there’s an indictment it’s public information. Since the IRS, being the IRS, could leak the returns, the Trump campaign and the Republicans in Congress with oversight over the IRS should make it clear now that such leaks about Mr. Trump or any other candidate will be dealt with harshly. Privacy rights should still matter.

Tough talker or not, Mr. Trump has waffled on the issue. One day he says he will release the returns. Then he says he won’t, and then he says maybe later. He could put out a statement saying the returns will remain known but to him and his accountants. There’s political risk in that, of course. Voters are entitled to judge a candidate for whatever reason they choose, and the custom over the decades, of candidates releasing their returns, has given custom the color of precedent. But if he wants to take that risk, that’s Mr. Trump’s business, too. He says he tries to take advantage of every legal loophole to reduce his tax liability. Who doesn’t? “I try to pay as little tax as possible,” he says, “because I hate what they do with my tax money.” That’s appealing, too, because there’s a lot of waste and corruption to hate.

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