Tax return politics: Trump stonewalls our ‘novelty tradition’

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    In this looniest of all election seasons, few pleasures are more exquisite than watching Trump flack Katrina Pierson do her thing. 

    She’s the spinner who surfaced on TV last winter wearing a necklace of bullets; earlier this month she said that Iraq war policies crafted by Barack Obama killed Army Capt. Humayyn Kahn (Kahn was killed in 2004, when Obama was a state senator in Illinois); last week she said that Afghanistan was “Obama’s war,” even though he was in Illinois when George W. Bush launched it in 2001.

    But yesterday, on Fox News, Pierson topped herself by defending Trump’s ongoing refusal to release his tax returns.

    Granted, it’s not easy to defend the indefensible — Hillary Clinton released her ’15 tax returns on Friday; indeed, the Clintons have now released all their returns dating back to the disco era — and it’s surely not easy to flack for a nominee who appears to have time-traveled from the racist Know Nothing Party of 1856. But even though everyone outside the shrinking Trump bubble recognizes that Clinton’s tax return release stokes the pressure on Trump to do the same, Pierson stays in character. Comically so.

    We all know by now that Trump won’t release any of his returns dating back more than 30 years, because he’s supposedly the target of an ongoing IRS audit. But Fox News host Arthel Neville reminded Pierson yesterday that candidates are free to release returns even if they’re being audited; no law stops them from doing so. Neville then asked, “Why won’t Mr. Trump release his tax returns?”

    Pierson: “This really has become much of a novelty in presidential campaigns.”

    The Fox host: “What has become a novelty?”

    Pierson: “Just simply releasing tax returns.”

    The Fox host: “It’s been going on since the 1970s.” 

    True that. Every single nominee in the post-Watergate era — starting in 1976 — has released his or her tax returns.

    The Fox host: “It’s a tradition, not a novelty.”

    Pierson‘s rejoinder (get ready for this, folks): “It’s a novelty tradition!”

    Fine, call it whatever you want. The upside of this “novelty tradition” is that voters get valuable information about the candidates who aspire to the most powerful job on earth. The Clintons earned $10.6 million in 2015, and paid a federal tax rate of 34.2 percent. Voters are now free to view those stats as good or bad. Some will surely Hillary and Bill as rich elitists, but at least the Clintons are willing to take their lumps. Trump clearly is not.

    Where does he get off thinking he should be treated differently? This is a guy who has never spent a day in public service. The only way voters can judge his fitness for office is to scrutinize his conduct in the private sector. We don’t know if he’s hiding anything, but hiding behind his lawyers (who have supposedly gifted him the audit excuse) merely reminds us of all that we don’t know.

    Stonewalling is bad politics. (This guy wrote the book on bad politics, so there’s that.) The longer Trump hides his returns, the more our suspicions are allowed to run free.

    Maybe he doesn’t want to show us that he’s not nearly as financially successful as he has claimed himself to be. Maybe he doesn’t want to show us that he’s a charity skinflint. Maybe he doesn’t want to imperil his status as a working-class hero by showing how little he pays in taxes. (We do know that he paid nothing in 1978 and 1979.) Maybe there’s evidence that he’s in financial hock to Russian oligarchs. Or maybe he’s just reluctant to release proprietary business information that his competitors could use against him — which could mean that he fully expects to return to the business world, fearing that Clinton will clean his clock.

    But instead of clarity, we get excuses. Pierson said yesterday that if Trump were to release his returns, “the media” would be mean to him. In her words, “The media is gonna be all over it, making up headlines.” Bashing “the media” still wins plaudits inside the Trump bubble, but that fine whine won’t play with general election voters who want tax return transparency. (By the way, the tax return headlines couldn’t possibly be worse than the headlines Trump concocts about himself, such as “Obama founded ISIS” and “If I lose, it’s because Pennsylvania cheated.”)

    The longer Trump stonewalls, the more he’ll isolate himself from the GOP. His own running mate signaled this weekend that he’ll release tax returns before the election. And Congressman Mark Sanford — a southern conservative, arguably a barometer of restive Republican sentiment — wrote in a guest column today that his continued support for the nominee hinges in part on whether Trump releases his returns: “The idea of [giving] the voter the chance to see how a candidate has handled his or her finances is a central part of making sure the right person gets the job … You may talk a good game; tax returns don’t.”

    By the way, here was Trump on TV, in May 2014, talking a good game: “If I decide to run for office, I’ll produce my tax returns, absolutely, and I would love to do that.”

    Maybe he was just being sarcastic.

    And speaking of Trump and Russia, this is today’s must-read.

    Imagine what Republicans would say if Clinton’s campaign manager was listed on the ledgers of a corrupt pro-Putin party as the intended recipient of $12.7 million in cash payments. Anti-corruption investigators in Ukraine, sharing info with the FBI, have identified those payments as part of an illegal off-the-books operation.

    The target of that probe is Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager. In any other election year, he’d already be gone.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

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