Donald Trump was the first major presidential candidate in 40 years not to release his taxes. His campaign steadfastly insisted they would be released as soon as a “routine audit” was completed — a position Trump reiterated earlier this month during the only news conference he held as president-elect.
But comments White House counselor Kellyanne Conway made Sunday on This Week broke with that position. Pressed about Trump’s tax returns, Conway said they wouldn’t be released even after the audit is through.
“The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns,” Conway said. “We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care. They voted for him, and let me make this very clear: Most Americans… are very focused on what their tax returns will look like while President Trump is in office, not what his look like.”
Conway made those comments on the same day she coined the euphemism “alternative facts” to describe the lies Press Secretary Sean Spicer peddled during his first appearance before the White House press corps.
By Monday morning, Conway had already walked back her remarks about Trump’s returns, tweeting that team Trump’s position on his tax returns hasn’t actually changed:
On taxes, answers (& repeated questions) are same from campaign: POTUS is under audit and will not release until that is completed. #nonews
— Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) January 23, 2017
Conway made no attempt to explain the contradiction between that tweet and her comments the day before. But one thing is clear — her claim that “people didn’t care” about Trump’s tax returns is false (or, to use her parlance, an “alternative fact”).
On Saturday, a We the People petition calling for the White House to “immediately release Donald Trump’s full tax returns, with all information needed to verify emoluments clause compliance” surpassed the 100,000 signature mark just two days after it was created. That certainly suggests there’s ongoing interest in Trump’s tax returns.
Polling before the election was clear about this, too. A CNN survey conducted in October “found that 73 percent of registered voters surveyed think Trump should release his tax returns for public review, including about half of Republicans at 49 percent.”
Some of the reasons why voters think it’s important for Trump to release them are detailed in a Sunlight Foundation blog post noting that because presidents are exempt from conflict of interest laws, tax returns shed important light on their conflict of interest situation.
“Yearly salaries are often reported in the news but tax returns reveal so much more about the character of the candidate,” the Sunlight Foundation writes. “Their debts give us a broader sense of the state of their finances, and perhaps more importantly an idea to whom they could feel beholden. We learn how much (or little) they paid in taxes, and whether they utilized loopholes in tax law to avoid paying those taxes. It sheds light on whether they conducted activity that they have criticized on the campaign trail.”
Trump’s line about an ongoing audit being the reason he won’t release his returns has always been an excuse. As Paul Krugman wrote in May, “the fact that he’s being audited (or at least that he says he’s being audited) should make it easier for him to go public — after all, he needn’t fear triggering an audit!”
Trump spilled the beans about the real reason he’s not releasing his returns during an interview with ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos in July.
“I watched Mitt Romney four years ago, he waited until September to [release the returns], just before the election,” Trump said. “They made him look so bad, it was so unfair. I actually think he didn’t lose because of the 47 percent [comment], I think he lost because of a couple really minor items in a tax return where he did nothing wrong.”