As millions of Americans scramble to file their tax returns by Monday’s deadline, many are wondering what’s in the private tax returns of this year’s presidential candidates.
That’s an open question in the case of candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, neither of whom have disclosed years of tax returns.
Sanders released his 2014 tax return late Friday. It showed that he and his wife, Jane, earned $205,271 that year, largely from his $174,000 Senate salary and the Social Security benefits they both receive.
He owed $27,653 in federal taxes, but had $31,825 withheld, and received a $4,172 return, according to the documents.
Still, only Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has fully disclosed years worth of returns. Sanders has released an abbreviated version of his taxes for a single year. Trump hasn’t released anything, while his Republican challengers, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have made only partial tax information public.
All told, the 2016 presidential campaign has been an abysmal one so far for tax transparency, according to tax experts and government watchdog groups.
“It has been pretty bad,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, an advocacy group. “To tell the truth, it’s really only Hillary that’s been fully complying with that expectation that the candidates release all their tax returns. All the other candidates have released just the summary pages . . . and not the details.”
Without the full returns, voters can’t see such items as sources of income, which tax breaks they claimed, what they might have deducted as business expenses or how much they gave to charity, said Joseph Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project at Tax Analysts and author of the “Politics of Federal Taxation” column for Tax Notes magazine.
“In some ways, it’s even more insidious; we’re watering down what counts as a tax disclosure,” he said.
There is no requirement that candidates show their tax returns, but it has become common practice for White House seekers since Jimmy Carter became president in 1976.
The returns provide voters a look into the personal finances and charitable contributions of candidates and gives insight into whether he or she has any potential conflicts of interest.
Trump has maintained that he can’t release copies of his recent tax returns because he’s currently being audited by the Internal Revenue Service.
There is no IRS provision that prevents Trump from releasing his returns. Richard Nixon in the 1970s released his returns even though he was facing an audit, Thorndike said.
“It’s obviously not convenient to release your tax returns. It’s probably even less convenient if you’re being audited,” he said. “But it’s not about the convenience of the candidate; if that were the case, they wouldn’t release anything. We have a right to expect transparency and an audit does not get in the way of that.”
Trump has been getting hammered by his Republican presidential rivals, GOP insiders and outside groups over his taxes. They’ve raised questions about whether he’s exaggerating claims about his wealth or made some charitable contributions that run counter to conservative principles.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was dogged by questions about his tax returns until he finally released them during his 2012 Republican presidential bid, suggested in February that Trump’s returns may contain a potentially damaging “bombshell.”
Cruz said that the New York businessman is holding on to his returns because they might show ties to organized crime or charitable contributions to Planned Parenthood, a group that many social conservatives oppose because it provides legal abortion services.
Trump’s campaign did not return email requests for comment to McClatchy.
Cruz has released full returns for earlier years, when he was running for the Senate, but his most recent returns haven’t been made available. Asked whether Cruz intends to release full copies of his tax returns, Alice Stewart, Cruz’s communications director, said, “I’ll check on that.”
Kasich’s office also didn’t respond to McClatchy’s requests for comment Friday. When Kasich released abbreviated tax information last month, his spokesman, Rob Nichols, told Bloomberg, “We have done what the others in the race have done.”
Sanders’ tardiness on releasing his tax returns is a head-scratcher for tax experts and campaign watchdogs. Why would a self-proclaimed Democratic socialist who’s been in government a long time and who doesn’t appear to earn a lot of income beyond his government salary not fully release his returns?
Sanders did disclose information about his 2014 returns. But, like Cruz and Kasich, he provided only partial information.
“If Sanders wanted to make people suspicious, he’s doing exactly the right thing,” Thorndike said. “It’s puzzling.”
At Thursday’s Democratic debate in Brooklyn, Sanders said he hasn’t release his tax returns because his wife, Jane, does the family taxes and “we’ve been a little busy lately” on the campaign trail.
“You’ll get them, yes, yeah,” Sanders told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer Thursday. “I don’t want to get anybody excited. They are very boring tax returns . . . No big money from speeches, no major investments. Unfortunately – unfortunately, I remain one of the poorer members of the United States Senate. And that’s what they will show.”
Clinton, who last year released tax returns covering 2007 to 2014, pounced on Sanders’ remark that he and his wife haven’t had time to release his tax records because of their campaign schedule.
“Well, you know, there are a lot of copy machines around,” she said. “There is a long-standing expectation that everybody running release their tax returns . . . you can go to my website and see eight years of tax returns. And I’ve released 30 years of tax returns. And I think every candidate, including Senator Sanders and Donald Trump, should do the same.”
McClatchy Washington Bureau reporter Maria Recio contributed to this report.