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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson September 7, 2016

Donald Trump says his financial disclosures more than make up for lack of releasing tax returns

As Election Day draws nearer, the window for Donald Trump to release his tax returns continues to narrow. When asked about his refusal to release his tax returns during an interview with ABC News’ David Muir, Trump said that "the only one that cares is the press. ... It’s not a big deal."

Trump went on to say that he’s already provided significant information about his holdings.

"I released the most extensive financial review of anybody in the history of politics," Trump said. "It’s either 100 or maybe more pages of names of companies, locations of companies, etc., etc., and it's a very impressive list, and everybody says that. … You don't learn much in a tax return."

Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to an inquiry for this article, but he appears to be referring to the Executive Branch Personnel Public Financial Disclosure Report, also known as OGE Form 278e. This is a form that all presidential candidates must fill out.

In Trump’s case, his financial disclosure form is indeed extensive. It runs 92 pages, often crammed with small print detailing assets, income sources and positions held. By comparison, Mitt Romney -- the 2012 Republican nominee who was a businessman with a complex set of holdings -- filed a 47-page disclosure form, not counting amendments and updates.

But does his release of that information mean Trump is releasing more than prior presidential candidates who opened their tax returns to public scrutiny? We took a closer look.

The history of presidential tax-filing releases

The key difference comes from Trump’s refusal to release his tax filings. (Trump has cited an ongoing audit by the Internal Revenue Service.) Whereas the personal financial disclosure form must by law be made public, public release of a candidate’s tax returns is a 40-year tradition that isn’t required by law.

As we have previously noted, Tax Analysts, a publisher specializing in tax policy, has been collecting publicly available tax returns of presidential candidates and other top officials for its Tax History Project. This archive goes back as far as the 1913 tax returns of future president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford, did not release his tax returns but instead provided a summary of his taxes. His opponent, Jimmy Carter, did release his tax returns that year -- and every major-party nominee since Carter has released them to the public, until Trump.

Hillary Clinton has released her tax returns from 2000 to 2015.

Right off the bat, the fact that Trump has not released any tax filings undermines his claim to have "released the most extensive financial review of anybody in the history of politics," despite the lengthy personal financial disclosure form he submitted.

Romney’s 2010 tax filing, for instance, runs 203 pages and is chock full of detail about his personal financial situation. For instance, Romney’s tax return "scrutinized his family’s charitable foundation and their donations to their church," said Ryan Williams, a longtime aide to Romney and a spokesman during his 2012 presidential campaign.

So how seriously does the lack of public tax filings undermine Trump’s claim? We checked with experts.

Why tax filings matter

"It is true that Trump's businesses have received a lot of attention, but without the release of Trump's tax returns, we don't know a lot about his personal financial situation," said Lawrence White, an economist at New York University’s Stern School of Business.

The two most obvious pieces of the puzzle missing without Trump’s tax returns are the effective rate of tax he pays on his income, and the extent and nature of his charitable giving.

Depending on what figures appear on his tax forms, Trump could face political criticism. Paying a low tax rate could be politically embarrassing. And Trump has faced questions about his past charitable giving. (For details, see the ongoing coverage by reporter David Farenthold of the Washington Post.)

Tax returns also can give a clearer picture of the candidate’s liquid assets. "Trump can inflate his image of being rich on the financial disclosure forms, but you can get a better sense of how much he’s actually making from his tax returns," said Williams, who did not support Trump during the GOP primary and now says he’s officially undecided on the presidential race.

Other nuggets can be gleaned from tax forms as well, such as what specific mix of taxes the candidate paid.

"Romney’s tax return showed us a ton of valuable information about Romney, including the fact that most of his substantial income was ‘carried interest,’ " which is a type of tax-favored income available primarily to fund managers, said Allan Sloan, a business columnist for the Washington Post. Because of this, "we saw that the majority of his income was taxed at low rates."

Trump wouldn’t necessarily qualify for the carried-interest tax, but as a someone in the real-estate business, he would have access to specialized tax breaks of his own, Sloan said.

There is a "provision in tax law that allows people who spend at least half their working time as real-estate or development professionals to get depreciation deductions not available to other investors," he said. "That’s a huge loophole, and it’s gotten nothing like the attention that carried interest has gotten."

The fact that Trump has not run for office before or served in government makes the scrutiny of his business dealings especially important for those who care about transparency. Yet the fact that he runs a privately held company makes it hard for outsiders to get a handle on his personal finances as long as no public tax filing is available, experts said.

"Because Trump’s business dealings are varied and extensive, there is a lot to look at, but the quality of information is often poor, so reporters spend a lot of time looking at information insufficient to draw accurate conclusions," said Dennis Caplan, an associate professor of accounting at the University at Albany.

Our ruling

Trump said that he has "released the most extensive financial review of anybody in the history of politics. … You don't learn much in a tax return."

Trump did release an extensive (and legally required) document detailing his personal financial holdings. However, experts consider that a red herring. Unlike all presidential nominees since 1980, Trump has not released his tax returns, which experts say would offer valuable details on his effective tax rate, the types of taxes he paid, and how much he gave to charity, as well as a more detailed picture of his income-producing assets.

Trump’s statement is inaccurate. We rate it False.

https://www.sharethefacts.co/share/9df4ceb5-99d9-46df-826d-586d21e012f9

Our Sources

Donald Trump, interview with ABC’s David Muir, Sept. 6, 2016

Donald Trump, presidential financial disclosure form, accessed Sept. 7, 2016

Tax Analysts, "Tax History Project: Presidential Tax Returns," accessed Sept. 7, 2016

Mitt Romney, tax filing, 2010

Mitt Romney, presidential financial disclosure form, 2007

Center for Responsive Politics, Mitt Romney presidential financial disclosure form index page, accessed Sept. 7, 2016

Washington Post, "Trump promised millions to charity. We found less than $10,000 over 7 years," June 28, 2016

PolitiFact, "Bernie Sanders has released few tax returns compared with past and present candidates," April 6, 2016

PolitiFact Virginia, "Tim Kaine wrongly says Richard Nixon released tax returns during campaign," Aug. 22, 2016

Email interview with Mark Horvit, associate professor of journalism at the University of Missouri and executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Sept. 6, 2016

Email interview with Allan Sloan, business columnist for the Washington Post, Sept. 6, 2016

Email interview with Ryan Williams, former aide to Mitt Romney and a spokesman during his 2012 presidential campaign, Sept. 7, 2016

Email interview with Lawrence White, economist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Sept. 6, 2016

Email interview with Dennis Caplan, associate professor of accounting at the University at Albany, Sept. 6, 2016

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Donald Trump says his financial disclosures more than make up for lack of releasing tax returns

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