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The saga of Trump’s tax returns calls into question ethical standards for presidential candidates

Two years and 242 days into the presidency of Donald J. Trump and the only thing that has become clear over all that time is just how unclear he prefers the details of his life beyond the Oval Office photo ops to be. With democratic primary elections looming, American voters are going to be forced to determine how they view the office of the president and how they would like the occupant of that seat to view the office’s relationship to their electorate. There is arguably no better place to start, concerning the role and requirements of a president, than the saga of the sitting president’s tax returns. 

The most recent chapter in the battle to reveal the history of the president’s financial decisions and how truthful he has been with the American public concerning the subject has taken place both on the eastern and western seaboards of the nation. In New York, the Manhattan District Attorney subpoenaed eight years of the president’s tax returns to determine if the Trump Organization had committed fraud by making payments to the pornstar Stormy Daniels. In California, the state government passed a law requiring all candidates to release their tax returns for the last five years in order to have their name included on the primary ballot. In both cases, Donald Trump’s team of attorneys succeeded in significantly stalling any efforts to bring the president’s tax returns into the public eye. 

The arguments that have been employed by Trump and his legal representatives have been diverse, to say the least. During the 2016 election and the early days of his presidency, Trump’s excuse for not releasing his tax returns was that he was under audit and he pledged to release them as soon as the audits resolved. In response to these excuses, CNN published a fact-checking article in April which clarified that since the Watergate era, presidents have been frequently subject to audits and have released their tax returns regardless. Even Trump’s former attorney and fixer Michael Cohen admitted to the House Oversight Committee that, despite asking for it, he had never seen a copy of the audit. 

Since then, the arguments have shifted and grown more defensive outright, such as in the case with the Manhattan District Attorney where the president’s attorneys argued that “the founding fathers believed that sitting presidents should not be subject to criminal process,” according to a Vanity Fair article. The attorneys also argued in the California primary elections case that, according to an article in the LA Times, “the California law would unfairly force the president to give up his right to privacy to keep his tax returns confidential.” What once the president had promised to eventually release has, after two years, become one of the numerous secrets that Trump refuses to divulge, with no regard for the inconsistency of his arguments.

The positive outcome of these court rulings, which have stalled any meaningful progress towards Trump’s tax returns reaching the public eye, is that actions regarding the subject and the excuses he has made for them raise important questions for voters about the role of transparency and accountability in politics, especially in the executive branch. Should a president be beholden to the electorate that he or she supposedly serves? Is a president entitled to the same sort of privacy regarding their business dealings as Jeff Bezos, or even more so? The answers to these questions should not be so hard for the citizens of a nation predicated upon checks and balances and the rule of law. If a high ethical standard is to be set for the nation’s highest office, then a high degree of scrutiny should not be fought, it should be welcomed

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