Make tradition the law

There are resounding ethical reasons why President Donald Trump should release his tax returns.

If he does, it won’t be because people are marching in the street demanding it. Trump seems impervious to any suggestion that the American people have an interest in how his assets and liabilities affect his policy positions or compromise him in any way — even though polling confirms that a majority of Americans want him to release his returns.

But if he wants to make tax reform legislation one of his crowning achievements, he’s going to have to face reality.

As Richard Painter — an expert on government ethics and a faculty member at the University of Minnesota — recently told PBS NewsHour: “I can’t imagine that Congress would sign off on a bill proposed by the president if he’s not going to disclose how the bill is going to affect him financially. And the only way to do that is release those tax returns.”

We would prefer that the president recognize the valid public interest at stake rather than releasing his returns merely as a means to a political end. But transparency hasn’t been the hallmark of the Trump administration, even though Trump was a frequent critic of his predecessor for being secretive.

And rightly so, we might add. David Sanger, a veteran Washington correspondent for The New York Times was quoted in a report released on behalf of the Committee to Protect Journalists that the Obama administration was “the most closed, control-freak administration I’ve ever covered.”

Trump is a mixed bag on the issue. He excoriates the media, but answers their questions — with spin and denial of obvious facts. He’s accessible, but delivers little in the way of substance. He’s had ample opportunity to clear a bar that Obama lowered considerably. But his refusal to release tax records puts him on equally poor footing with regard to transparency.

How can he propose an overhaul of the regulatory environment on Wall Street when nobody knows how much the president owes and to whom? How can he chart a course on foreign policy when he won’t reveal his foreign interests?

This hasn’t been an issue, until now, because presidential candidates have recognized that making tax returns public is vital to gaining the people’s trust. But Trump turned convention on its ear by becoming the first president in 40 years to reject this tradition. The fallout guarantees that he’ll be the last.

There are simply too many potential conflicts when one is president of the United States to not disclose them. Trump may yet as a consequence of legislative pressure. But Congress needs to do more — especially if running for president becomes some sort of bucket-list challenge for America’s billionaires.

We need a law that requires presidential candidates to release their tax returns so the voting public can spot conflicts of interest.

Trump’s worldwide business interests have also exposed the need for a law governing the president’s personal finances. Once elected, a president’s assets should go into a blind trust, thus removing any suggestion that policy formation is tied to personal gain.


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