President Trump’s tax returns, or rather his unwillingness to disclose them, have been a point of contention since he entered the political scene as a GOP candidate in 2015. The interest revived earlier this month when two pages of Trump’s personal tax returns from 2005 were leaked.
The Law Weekly sat down with Professor George Yin to discuss the meaning of the most recent release and the importance of presidential tax documents.
Professor Yin came to UVa in 1994 from the University of Florida College of Law. Before entering academia, he served as tax counsel to the U.S. Senate Finance Committee. In 2003, Yin was tapped by Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) to be Chief of Staff of Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation, where he served from 2003–2005. The Committee is analogous to the Congressional Budget Office; it investigates the operation and administration of taxes, reports on and makes policy recommendations to Congress, estimates the revenue effect of all tax proposals, and reviews all proposed tax refunds over $2 million.
Yin has most recently written an op-ed for the Washington Post regarding the Congressional authority, dating back to 1924, to obtain and disclose the tax returns of any taxpayer, including the President, without his or her consent. The committees with this authority are the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, and the Joint Committee on Taxation.
Throughout the campaign, the Trump camp refused to release any tax documents, but last week, two pages of now President Trump’s 2005 return were leaked to investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, who claimed that they were mysteriously left in his home mailbox. Due to the innocuous nature of the information revealed, Yin believes the two pages may have been leaked by the Trump administration or by a financial institution Trump has used. He explained that the leaked information is the same kind that people must submit to qualify for a financial benefit from a bank, such as a mortgage.
“Trump calls himself ‘the king of debt,’ so if he has been borrowing money it would be normal practice for lending institutions to receive this information” Yin says.
When asked whether he believed a member of the IRS leaked the returns, he responded that it would be “pretty unlikely.” Yin explained that if an employee were to risk jail time in order to do the President harm, “this is not the document that would have been leaked because of how little information it contained.”
Although this particular document does not reveal useful information about Trump’s business practices and connections, Yin believes a complete examination of his returns might be extremely telling. And there is a body that can legally expose the complete picture: Congress.
Despite Republican control, Yin believes Congress should and will investigate the President’s tax history, including his business returns, as early as the end of the calendar year. Yin cites the investigation of Russian meddling in U.S. elections as potentially opening the floodgates to an investigation of Trump’s ties with Russia. “Trump’s business tax returns may certainly provide vital clues to potential involvement with Russia or other foreign nations,” Yin says.
Second, Yin believes the Republican members of Congress are not so loyal to the President that they would disregard the opinions of their own constituents. He forecasts that the President’s leadership may wane (noting the failure of the first major piece of legislation of Trump’s administration, the American Health Care Act) and as Trump becomes less popular among the people, Yin suggests, “individuals may begin to defect.”
Third and perhaps most optimistically, Yin believes that transparency, as a central ideal of American good governance, is one that will transcend partisanship. Over the last forty years, Yin says, presidents have consistently disclosed their tax information to the public to show that they are free from conflicts of interest and pay their proper share of taxes. Candidates from both sides of the aisle, most notably Secretary Clinton, have been criticized and investigated on grounds of lack of transparency. Yin foresees the same fate for President Trump.
If Yin’s prediction that Congress will investigate the President’s tax returns comes to fruition, given Trump’s demeanor, it does not seem likely he will give up this coveted information without a fight. But Yin says there is nothing a President can do (short of breaking the law) to prevent a congressional committee from obtaining the returns. “The law clearly states that the tax committees may request the information from the Treasury Secretary, and the Treasury Secretary shall provide it. There is no discretion involved. The President isn’t in the picture.” Yin says Congress intentionally excluded any presidential involvement in the aftermath of Watergate.
“Because of allegations that Nixon misused tax information against his enemies, Congress explicitly ‘built a wall’ to keep future presidents from obtaining returns,” Yin explains. A President now may only obtain very limited information relating to possible presidential appointees. If a President seeks any other tax information, he must report it to the Joint Committee on Taxation, which may disclose the presidential access if it is in the national interest.
Another reason Yin believes Congress may invoke its power to access the President’s returns is to examine the impact his administration’s tax reform proposals may have on him. “The question Congress and the American people will want to know is ‘how will these proposed changes personally affect the President and his businesses?’”
The two pages of President Trump’s 2005 return showed that over eighty-five percent of his taxes in that year were due to the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) system. The AMT is a supplemental income tax structure targeted towards wealthy individuals who may take advantage of so many deductions under the traditional tax structure that they effectively pay little to no income tax. If the tax reform proposal of the administration repeals the AMT as the President has previously advocated, the American people will want to know whether Trump would receive an eighty-five percent (or greater) cut in taxes as a result.
Finally, Yin explains that an investigation into the President’s tax returns will help determine whether the IRS is treating the President like any other taxpayer. The IRS is supposed to treat everyone the same, “but obviously, it is easy to imagine this weakened agency ‘going easy’ on the President. An analogous situation happened in the 1920s when Andrew Mellon, who was Secretary of the Treasury at the time, was rumored to be getting special treatment from the Agency. That concern was another reason Congress passed the 1924 law.”
Yin emphasizes that an investigation does not necessarily have to end in public disclosure “That’s a separate question, it’s too early to decide whether disclosure should occur.”
Trump’s interest in Russia doesn’t yet add up for Yin. “The President has been speaking sympathetically of Russia for a while, but why? Why does he seem to be so protective of Putin and Russia?” It would be one thing if there were a philosophical tie, but Yin is skeptical of any such connection. “I don’t see the President as being very philosophically driven, so the question is ‘what is important to him?’ And the only answer seems to be money.” If money is Trump’s connection with Russia, then his business tax returns may explain a great deal of his rhetoric.
Along with teaching Partnership and Federal Income Tax, Professor Yin currently serves as a member of the IRS Advisory Council that provides recommendations on improving the IRS’s estimates of the “tax gap.”
1 George K. Yin, Congress Has the Power to Obtain and Release Trump’s Tax Returns, Washington Post (Feb. 7, 2017), http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/congress-has-the-power-to-obtain-and-release-trumps-tax-returns/2017/02/07/aa53254c-ea63-11e6-80c2-30e57e57e05d_story.html?utm_term=.02d0c583e7d5.
2 Christine Wang, Here’s One Curious Thing About the Donald Trump Tax Leak, CNBC (Mar. 15, 2017), http://www.cnbc.com/2017/03/14/trump-may-have-leaked-his-own-tax-return-award-winning-journalist-says.html.