Thanks to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the campaign for president has become in part a bizarre version of the old celebrity game show, “I’ve Got a Secret.”
This time, however, we know what secrets are being kept. We just don’t know the details, or what devils may be in them.
Clinton’s are the transcripts of those pricey Wall Street speeches.
But that’s petty stuff compared to what may be in Trump’s income tax returns.
Neither candidate has a plausible excuse for stonewalling the public.
Clinton’s evasion — that she’ll release the texts only if other high-priced speechmakers reveal theirs — evokes the image of children on a playground yelling, “Nyah, you can’t make me!”
Moreover, no one else who’s being paid so well for speeches has the potential to populate the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve with Goldman Sachs executives.
But at least we know how much she was paid and who paid it. And she has released her tax returns from 2007 to 2014. The $725,000 she got for the three Goldman Sachs speeches in 2013 — the ones Bernie Sanders has hectored her over — turn out to account for some 8 percent of her speechmaking income that year. That fee per speech, $225,000, was also the standard for nearly all the 38 other appearances she itemized. So much for her rationalizing that “It’s what they offered.”
A few were higher, notably $400,000 for a joint meeting of two Jewish charities in Chicago. If anything should raise eyebrows, it ought to be that.
If there were anything in the Goldman-Sachs speeches as offensive as Romney writing off “the 47 percent,” it would have leaked by now. Her stonewalling may be nothing more than characteristic stubbornness.
To her credit, the itemized list went beyond what the IRS requires. It will be interesting to see whether she posts one for 2014. We are waiting.
That said, Clinton has gone as far as anyone reasonably could ask in disclosing her personal finances and those of husband Bill. Ted Cruz and John Kasich haven’t revealed nearly as much.
In all but two of the years since they left the White House, the Clintons’ effective federal tax rates were at 30 percent or higher (37.5 percent last year). That’s about par for the top 1 percent of American household incomes, and more than many.
This brings us to one very likely reason why Trump is afraid to release his returns.
Considering the loopholes available to real estate speculators like him, along with the various other ways he might minimize his taxes, Trump could have been paying even less than the 14 percent that embarrassed Mitt Romney.
He may even be paying nothing at all.
Were he to disclose as much as the Clintons have — not just the first two pages of the 1040 form but all of the supporting documents and schedules — they could expose him to be something far less than the mega-billionaire he claims to be.
They could reveal business connections that might not be consistent with the discretion and integrity that Americans can reasonably expect of a president. They could show how much he profits from foreign ventures
And they could show that he gives little or nothing to charity.
His excuse for not revealing them — that he’s being audited — is as phony as calling a lecture scam a “university.”
“I am aware of no legal reason why someone could not voluntarily agree to release his tax returns,” explains John R. Crawford, a board-certified tax law expert at Jacksonville, who is a media contact for the Florida Bar.
“I can certainly understand, however, that someone may be reluctant to release a document when there is a very real possibility that it contains errors and will be changed in the near future, whether as a result of an audit or otherwise,” he added. “Also, the more complex the return, the more carefully it would have to be scrutinized before release in order to make sure that any third party confidential information that may be a part of the return (such as tax ID numbers) are redacted.”
Walt Logan, a recently retired Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge who was a CPA before becoming a lawyer, said the same.
“Whatever time is under audit, there is no prohibition against publication by a taxpayer.”
In a divorce or other family law case, he said, “were either party to take the position that they did not want to produce tax returns due to an audit, most judges — me included without doubt — would order the returns produced. The objecting party would have no basis in tax or law or regulations to fight the order.”
The same result — “produce the returns” — would apply in any litigation over debts or damages, “where income is otherwise relevant,” Logan said.
That Trump doesn’t want the public to know how he makes his money or how he spends it is relevant to his suitability for the presidency.
But he is, after all, the man who bragged that he could commit mayhem on Times Square and his followers would ignore it.
He has a point. He lies every time he opens his mouth, and they ignore it. He talks like some uneducated thug off the street, and they not only ignore it — they love it.
Even worse, he’s now threatening mob violence if the Republican convention thwarts him, and his followers really love that.
Keep in mind that he is still short of a majority of all the Republicans who have voted. This makes him the choice of maybe 10 percent of the U.S. population.
The arrogance and contempt symbolized by those secret tax documents speak volumes as to why he does not deserve even that share, much less more.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He lives in suburban Asheville, North Carolina. Column courtesy of Context Florida.