Why Americans Care About Trump’s Tax Returns
By Senator Ron Wyden
JAN. 12, 2017
WASHINGTON — In his news conference on Wednesday, President-elect Donald J. Trump claimed that the American public did not care that he had not released his tax returns, as has been routine for every presidential nominee since Watergate. He could not be more wrong. When I asked users on Twitter, the president-elect’s favored megaphone, to retweet if they cared about Mr. Trump’s tax returns, within hours more than 79,000 people responded.
The reason is simple. Without these returns, Americans cannot know whether he is using the presidency to enrich himself and his family. Americans won’t know whether a policy he proposes primarily benefits steelworkers in Pennsylvania or lines his own pocket.
They will also be unable to tell whether Mr. Trump is telling the truth when he claims to have no connections to Russia, contradicting public evidence and statements by his own son. His stated excuse about being under audit doesn’t pass the smell test. Previous presidents and nominees have released their returns under the same circumstances.
That’s why I and dozens of congressional colleagues have introduced legislation to force future presidential nominees and presidents to release their tax returns. As representatives of the people, if we can’t trust the executive branch to act ethically, we must force it to do so.
The forecast of things to come were already not good. In this election, Mr. Trump engaged in a profoundly cynical campaign that bulldozed faith in our government institutions. Now, in the most bizarre presidential transition in memory, he has combined praise of Russia’s “very smart” president, Vladimir V. Putin, with exceptional secrecy over his taxes and business dealings amid persistent reports about his associates’ connections to Russia.
In this environment, every claim takes on an air of credibility. It is no surprise, then, that the sensational and unverified accusations published online this week stirred a media frenzy. I cannot comment on these reports, or on whether there is any truth to their contents.
This is not the real issue, for what we know is bad enough. Mr. Trump is preparing to take office without having cleared the lowest ethical bar required to lead our nation.
Mr. Trump does not care about conflicts of interest. His proposal to separate himself from his business would have him continue to own his company, with his sons in charge. This arrangement “doesn’t meet the standards,” said the director of the nonpartisan Office of Government Ethics, that “every president in the past four decades has met.”
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Other American institutions have not done enough to force Mr. Trump to be accountable. On Tuesday, the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, refused to answer my question about whether the bureau had investigated ties between Trump associates and Russia that had been widely reported. Mr. Comey claimed that he did not speak about investigations, yet his actions of the past few months clearly contradict that statement.
Without transparency about the extent and nature of his business dealings, it will not be possible for the American public to track whether Mr. Trump is abusing his power, other than through leaks and unverified reports that will simply tear this government down cut by cut. The Republican-controlled Congress has not only failed to hold Mr. Trump accountable, but it has even taken steps to roll back existing ethics rules.
With the notable exception of my colleague Orrin Hatch of Utah, Republican Senate leaders have attempted to rush Mr. Trump’s cabinet candidates through the Senate with a rubber stamp. By scheduling eight confirmation hearings in one week, in many cases even before the Office of Government Ethics had finished its background checks, Republican leaders have put political expediency ahead of their duty.
Meanwhile, leaders in the House attempted to neuter the independent Office of Congressional Ethics — a move that was opposed by Mr. Trump, apparently a fan of oversight for anyone but himself — and they succeeded in passing a law that would allow political retribution against individual federal employees, by cutting their salaries to $1. This heralds a return to the days when public lands and public policies were up for sale to special interests at the bidding of powerful congressmen.
Americans expect better of their elected officials. But Mr. Trump has done nothing to live up to the responsibilities of his office.
When negative news stories surface, he goes on the attack. This week, Mr. Trump said that the release of the unconfirmed memo was a smear akin to “something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.” This bluster was not only antagonistic toward the intelligence agencies that serve this country, but deeply insulting to victims of the Holocaust.
My parents lived in Nazi Germany. They saw institutions being corrupted and turned against them, merely because they were Jews. My father was kicked out of school for being Jewish. He and my mother spent years living in fear of the knock on the door. They were fortunate to escape to America and to make good lives here, but we lost family in Kristallnacht.
Mr. Trump’s brush with rumor and innuendo is nothing like their experience. It is something he has brought on himself by running a campaign of disinformation rather than making full disclosure to the American people. He must ensure that a Trump administration will not return us to the days of Richard M. Nixon, or, worse, the scandal-ridden term of Warren G. Harding.
To do so, Mr. Trump must face the fact that independent nonpartisan bodies like the Office of Government Ethics are not out to get him; they are here to help him govern according to the rule of law. Mr. Trump chose to run for president, he won and is about to assume office as the most powerful man in the world. His responsibility now is the American people, not his family, his companies or his own bottom line.