“With few exceptions”? It’s that last caveat that amused many on social media when NBC reported on a declaration from Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP, Donald Trump’s tax attorneys for the past twelve years. Charles Murray scored the best response on Twitter, joking that “I’ve loved my visits to Middlebury, with few exceptions.”

However, the letter does explicitly state the exceptions, which are pretty minor:

Supposedly, the big issue behind both the push for Trump’s tax returns and the threat that he’s being co-opted by the Kremlin is that Trump has hidden business interests in Russia. According to his attorneys, that’s not the case. He has no debt to Russian interests, nor does Trump serve as a creditor to Russian interests. He derived no income from Russian sources either, with these exceptions:

  • $12 million for the 2013 Miss Universe pageant, which that year was held in Moscow
  • A $95 million sale of a Florida property to a Russian “billionaire” which resulted in a $54 million capital gain three years after its purchase
  • Sale of merchandise or rentals to hotels and resorts to Russians

The final exception can’t really be quantified, except perhaps through an exhaustive search of credit card receipts, but that’s pretty pointless anyway. The issue in this case is influence, and selling mattresses in Moscow or neckties in Novosibirsk is immaterial to influence. Neither of the two business transactions cited as exceptions provide any continuing financial relationship to Russian interests, and especially not the Russian government.

The next question, of course, is this: can the letter be trusted? The White House asked for the letter in response to a request from Sen. Lindsey Graham, according to the Associated Press, as part of the investigation into the Russia-influence probe. The letter apparently is in lieu of access to Trump’s tax returns, which is not going to satisfy critics of Trump, to say the least. It also does not suggest that Trump’s willing to waive attorney-client privilege; the letter is addressed to Trump, generated on his request, and not to any other entity, appropriately so for maintaining that privilege. Would Trump allow the committee to depose the attorneys for the investigation? I suspect the answer would be no, especially with Trump’s perpetual IRS audit as additional context.

It’s a credible response to the speculation about Trump’s business interests, but it’s not likely to be accepted as definitive. Either Trump will need to grant the committee access to his returns to put the rumors to rest once and for all, or he’ll have to learn to live with them. Bet on the latter.

Update: Tax attorney Wendy Thurm has some reservations about this “carefully crafted letter”:

Perhaps, but the issue at hand is influence in the present tense, too. This does demonstrate the point I made above, though, which is that any testimonial without actual testimony and/or access to the returns themselves won’t settle the question, at least politically.