Our Opinion: Tax returns may expose Trump's ineptitude

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There was a certain inevitability that Rep. Richard Neal's pursuit of President Donald Trump's tax returns would end up in court and that is where the House Ways and Means chairman is heading. A look Tuesday into the president's financial history during a portion of his business career offers insight into why the president is so determined to continue breaking precedent and hiding his tax returns.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told Rep. Neal, whose district includes Berkshire County, that after consultation with the Trump Justice Department he would not agree to the congressman's request to release the tax returns. This surprised no one, including Rep. Neal, who told the Washington Post that he would not follow up with subpoenas or contempt citations because the White House has established a pattern of ignoring both.

The Ways and Means chairman is on solid legal grounds as his request is based on a 1924 federal law stating that the IRS "shall furnish" any individual's tax returns if they are sought by a chairman of Congress' tax-writing committees, which Rep. Neal is. The law was written to prevent a president from blocking disclosure of tax returns following the Teapot Dome scandal during the administration of Warren Harding. Although the law would appear to be clearly on the side of Rep. Neal, a court challenge would be lengthy and perhaps enable the president to run out the clock on the 2020 election year and get through another campaign without providing this information to the voters.

The New York Times, meanwhile, having accessed official IRS tax transcripts of Mr. Trump's federal returns from 1985 to 1994, punched further holes in the myth of Trump the businessman. The Times reports that Mr. Trump lost so much money during those 10 years that he didn't pay federal taxes in eight of them. Over that decade, Mr. Trump reported losses of $1.17 billion from his core businesses, largely casinos, hotels and retail space in apartment buildings. By comparing those numbers to an annual IRS sampling of high-income earners, the Times reporters concluded that "In fact, year after year, Mr. Trump appears to have lost more money than nearly any other individual American taxpayer."

His 1987 memoir "Trump: The Art of the Deal," the TV program "The Apprentice," where Mr. Trump served essentially as a game show host, and his relentless self-promotion enabled him to create the fiction that he was a brilliant man of business. That fiction was part of the campaign platform that carried him to the White House. In truth, he regularly used the bankruptcy laws to escape financial ruin and routinely failed or refused to pay his debts to subcontractors and service providers.

As Rep. Neal goes forward in his important quest, we urge him to release his own tax returns, as he indicated he would do last month. That will remove an element of the distraction defense the Trump administration and its apologists will surely employ. Throughout his career, Rep. Neal received corporate campaign donations that were out of proportion with the modest, if non-existent, campaign challenges he received every two years. Now that national prominence has been thrust upon him as Ways and Means Committee chairmanship, his fundraising acumen will become an issue and he will be asked to explain why this kind of corporate largesse is necessary to supporters and detractors alike.

Mr. Trump must release his tax returns because that is what presidents and presidential candidates do in the name of transparency. In his particular case, the building of a false persona of a business genius who would use that acumen to bring economic prosperity to the nation as president makes the release of those returns all the more critical.

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