It began more than a decade ago.

In 2011, Donald Trump began – not for the first time – to rumble about possibly seeking the presidency. He didn’t have a campaign platform, as such, instead using the possibility of a bid to attract attention and vice versa. The political cause on which his effort was centered came (as was also the case four years later) from the fringe of the conservative media world: questioning Barack Obama’s birthplace.

Republicans Party Chair

Former President Donald Trump

So he made an offer: If Obama were to release his birth certificate, Trump would release his tax returns. Mocking the “carnival barkers” who were questioning his nativity, Obama released his birth certificate in April 2011. And Trump immediately started backtracking from his own commitment.

In an interview with CNN’s John King, Trump was asked when he’d fulfill his end of the bargain.

“I’ll be doing my tax returns at the appropriate time,” Trump snapped. “I haven’t even announced yet.”

After all, it was only when someone became a candidate that releasing one’s returns were part of the process, right?

Despite teasing King with familiar language (“I think a lot of people will be happy!”), Trump didn’t announce a 2012 bid. Instead, he backed Mitt Romney. Eventually, he offered his future nemesis some advice: Instead of releasing his own returns as the 2012 contest approached, Romney ought to insist that Obama release his – no, wait – his college applications first! Romney declined to heed this advice.

By 2014, Trump was again rumbling about a 2016 bid. In an interview that May, he was asked whether he’d produce tax returns as a candidate.

“If I decide to run for office,” he replied. “I’ll produce my tax returns, absolutely. I would love to do that.”

In February 2015, same routine: “I would release tax returns, and I would also explain to people that as a person that’s looking to make money, you know, I’m in the business of making money until I do this. And if I won, I would make money for our country.”

You know how this ends, of course. Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015. On Feb. 10, 2016, he pledged to release his taxes “over the next few months.” During a debate two weeks later, that changed.

“I will absolutely give my return,” Trump said, “but I’m being audited now for two or three years, so I can’t do it until the audit is finished, obviously.”

And that was that. From that point forward, this was the line: He wanted to release his tax returns, you see, since he’s so rich and so successful. But his attorneys – not him, mind you! – said that he had to wait until audits were over. His hands were tied!

You can see the appeal of this argument to Trump. It pitted him against the hated IRS, an institution that had only a few years before been pilloried by the right for having tried to enforce prohibitions against political activism by nonprofit organizations, like tea party groups.

“I paid tax, but – and you’ll see that as soon as my tax returns – it’s under audit,” Trump said at a 2020 news conference. “They’ve been under audit for a long time. The IRS does not treat me well. They treat me like the tea party – like they treated the tea party.”

There was no reason he couldn’t release his taxes despite the audit, of course. That was the argument from a former IRS commissioner who spoke with The Washington Post in April 2016; that was the assessment of most other observers as well. Particularly since several years had passed by the time he was running for reelection – the IRS was still auditing his 2015 and 2016 submissions? But this line, like so many before it, had become an article of faith among his supporters. And if they didn’t care, he didn’t care.

This month, more than seven years after Trump announced his presidential candidacy and nearly two years after he left office, a lengthy legal fight ended and the House Ways and Means Committee obtained copies of several years of Trump’s returns. On Tuesday evening, the committee voted to make those returns public.

It also released summary details gleaned from the returns in its possession, covering the years 2015 through 2020. The top-line numbers make clear why Trump wouldn’t have been eager to share his returns in 2016: the year before, he’d reported a $32 million loss. This contrasts a bit with the presentation that Trump is “in the business of making money,” as he said in 2015. Only once he became president did he start reporting non-negative income.

More interestingly, the committee also noted that the IRS didn’t complete legally mandated audits of Trump for his first two years in office, meaning 2017 and 2018. In 2019, an IRS whistleblower alleged that a political appointee from the Trump administration had attempted to interfere with that process. A copy of the whistleblower complaint was obtained by Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., that July. A few months before, Neal had sent the IRS a request for information about Trump’s audits – at which point, the committee reported Tuesday, the required audits began.

A week after that letter was sent, Trump again declined to release his returns.

“If I’m not under audit, I would do it,” he told reporters. “I had no problem with it. But while I’m under audit, I would not give my taxes.”

Democrats on Ways and Means indicated that “Trump had not been correct in claiming during his 2016 campaign that he could not release the records himself because of an ongoing IRS audit,” The Post reported Tuesday evening. Not simply because he could release them anyway, but because his claims about the audits themselves were dubious. It’s not clear whether his 2015 return was ever under audit, but it’s clear that his 2017 return wasn’t until at least two years later.

There are two revealing aspects to this decade-long saga.

The first is that the recent returns reinforce the pattern that had been slowly pieced together through isolated leaks: Trump’s business consistently operated at a loss, reducing his tax obligations.

The second is how Trump went from grudging acquiescence to the expected standards for political candidates to rejecting those standards as unnecessary intrusions from a hostile system. In that sense, the tax return fight is a microcosm of nearly everything else Trump did as president.

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