We are less than eight weeks away from Election Day, and Donald Trump, one of the two major-party presidential candidates, is refusing to release his tax returns. This is very frustrating and embarrassing for the press, which believes that a candidate’s financial situation is information that the public vitally needs to know.
It is time for the press to ask Donald Trump to release his tax returns.
To this, the press will say, But we have! Have you, though? A running complaint in the coverage of the coverage of Donald Trump’s bizarre charge toward the Oval Office is that the mainstream press lacks the proper tools to deal with a candidate like Trump—a candidate who shamelessly defies the rules and expectations of normal campaigning, who lies or dissembles or stonewalls about the most basic facts and information.
The case of the tax returns shows that this is true. Asking Donald Trump to do something is not as easy as simply saying the words of the request, as any unpaid building contractor can tell you. Trump is probably a bad businessman–his tax returns may shed a lot of light on that subject—but he is, on his crude terms, a very effective negotiator. The press is very ineffective at negotiating with him.
When I was living abroad, in a country where haggling was a daily feature of life, I learned a simple and incredibly successful technique. It works like this: You refuse to haggle. Presented with a piece of merchandise, you decide on your price, and you stick with it. Here is the plan in action:
Seller: I’ll give you this for 250.
Seller: That’s crazy! Are you joking? One-twenty-five.
Seller: My wholesale price is 85! I would be losing money!
You: [shrug and walk away]
Seller: [hurrying after you] OK, 20!
The key to the process is that final exchange. You have to be willing to walk away with nothing if your terms aren’t met.
There is supposedly a consensus across the entire mainstream press on what the terms here are. It is unacceptable for any candidate to conceal their financial situation. To be a candidate, a person must disclose their tax returns.
Yet reporters continue to ask Donald Trump questions about subjects other than his missing tax returns. When they do this, they are conceding that Trump can be a presidential candidate, after all, despite refusing to release his returns. It is a losing strategy.
Yes, there are dozens of other issues that Donald Trump ought to be asked about. Many of them are, in the abstract, more important than mere IRS paperwork—his ongoing appeals to white supremacists, his cavalier attitude about nuclear war, his ignorance or confusion about the basic mechanics of domestic or foreign policy.
But those are all complicated matters, and asking about any of them opens up a new sequence of claims and counterclaims and self-contradictions. Letting Trump jabber about serious policy is of minimal value, when he just makes up his plans on the spot and will say something else about them later. Catching Trump in those inconsistencies is so easy it’s essentially pointless. Even Trump doesn’t care.
What Trump does care about is hiding his tax returns. This is the one thing he is consistent about. Focus on it. It’s a very simple and binary issue: Releasing tax returns is a basic duty of being a candidate, and Trump has not done it.
Until he does, here is how any and every interview with Trump should go:
Reporter: When are you releasing your tax returns?
Trump: [Vague, dismissive response.]
Reporter: When are you releasing your tax returns?
Trump: [More hostile, vague response.]
Reporter: When are you releasing your tax returns, though?
This can go on until one side or the other walks away. Maybe Trump will be the one who walks. That’s fine! He’ll come back. The difference between Trump dealing with the press and Trump dealing with an unpaid plumbing contractor is that Trump doesn’t need the plumbing contractor anymore. He does need the press. Even his campaign of attacking and disparaging the press depends on the press paying attention to him.
If the press seriously decides to only pay attention to his tax returns, he’ll have to address his tax returns. So far, the press hasn’t, and so Trump hasn’t even bothered to come up with a sustainable evasion. He just says he can’t release his tax returns because he’s being audited. To this, a committed reporter would simply say that the IRS commissioner says people under audit are free to release their tax returns, so when is he releasing his tax returns?
One key to Trump’s ability to obstruct and obfuscate is that the press is wary of being seen to be “taking sides” in the election. But insisting that Trump release his tax returns is not taking sides, beyond taking the side that the public is entitled to standard background information about any major party’s nominee.
If Trump prevails on this issue, tax returns will no longer be standard background information. The blame for this falls, in large part, on the pious and upstanding Mitt Romney, who resisted releasing his own returns in the 2012 campaign until he was already deep in the Republican primary race. Romney may consider Trump unacceptable, but he gave Trump the blueprint for this particular unacceptable behavior. Trump, being Trump, just took it further. If Romney could stall until after the primaries had begun, Trump would stall until after the primaries were over. And then he would keep on stalling, as long as he could get away with it.
So far, the press has let him get away with it. If reporters want the public to see his tax returns, they have to ask for them—every reporter, every day—and ask, and ask, and ask. If Trump wins on this, it will be because the press allowed him to win.
When will Donald Trump release his tax returns?