In February 2015, Donald Trump promised to release his tax returns at some point during the election cycle, but who cares about pledges these days? Campaign chief Paul Manafort told CBS This Morning that Trump won’t release his returns after all, while insisting that it has to do with IRS audits than any desire to hide his business dealings from the public. Manafort specifically dismissed rumors that Trump has Russian ties he’d prefer to keep quiet:
A top aide to Donald Trump said Wednesday that the Republican presidential nominee “will not be releasing” his taxes.
“Mr. Trump has said that his taxes are under audit and he will not be releasing them,” Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort told “CBS This Morning.”
“It has nothing to do with Russia, it has nothing to do with any country other than the United States and his normal tax auditing process,” Manafort added.
The Russia speculation got amplified this week from comments made by George Will. The conservative columnist speculated — admittedly without proof — that his predilection for “dealing with Russian oligarchs” was the real reason for Trump’s sudden shyness:
Eh, maybe. The Clintons have their own issues about dealing with Russian oligarchs, the Uranium One deal in particular. No matter how much private-sector dealings Trump has had with oligarchs, it won’t stack up to the smelly circumstances that gave Russians control of American uranium thanks to State Department approval of the deal while Bill Clinton scored a $500,000 speaking deal from the bank involved. That oligarchical dance goes straight to official corruption and personal enrichment at the expense of national security, so it wouldn’t be tough for Trump to counter that kind of attack, and it seems unlikely that the Clintons would be dumb enough to open up that debate.
So what’s going on? Perhaps Trump’s nervous about letting people see why the IRS has been auditing him for more than a decade. It might be that the returns will show Trump’s claims of wealth to be greatly exaggerated, although wealth and income are two different things, and returns don’t necessarily reflect the former. Unfortunately, Trump’s year-long vacillation on this topic removes the argument for the principle of privacy, even though such an argument can certainly be made.
The problem for Trump is that this flip-flop erodes his standing to make the best argument against Hillary — that she can’t be trusted. It doesn’t make it any less true, but his sudden shyness about his business dealings and his backpedal from his early promise makes Trump look less than trustworthy himself, or at least diminishes the contrast between them. That won’t matter to his base, but independents might take this very, very differently.