If there are lessons to be gleaned from the curious case of the 11-year-old tax return, the first and foremost is that there's not all that much one can learn from a two-page 1040 form lacking corroborating materials. And surely, the second must be that the American public deserves far more than this tiny window into the billionaire's up and down financial past. President Donald Trump's continued failure to provide a much fuller disclosure of his finances, as all of his recent predecessors in the White House have done, remains one of the most nose-thumbing, let-them-eat-cake behaviors a contemporary U.S. president has taken toward his constituents.
For the record, the 2005 tax return so mysteriously provided to journalist David Cay Johnston, reproduced on his nonprofit web site, DC Report, and released with much fanfare on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" Tuesday night reveals income of $153 million, a write-down of $105 million in what's known as negative income and $36.5 million paid in income taxes. Nothing about Mr. Trump's business ties, nothing about exactly how he made his money and not even an explanation of his write-down, which may be connected to a billion-dollar loss in the 1990s.
Small wonder that Mr. Johnston and openly speculated that it's possible President Trump or one of his associates might have tossed the return his way. There was a time during the campaign when a lot of people were speculating that Mr. Trump paid no federal income tax at all. The only real downside for the president is that it shows the alternative minimum tax, that anti-loophole provision of the tax code designed to make sure high earners don't get away with highway robbery (which Mr. Trump has already proposed repealing), is sure earning its keep. The 1040 shows that $31 million of the Trump tax bill comes from the AMT. Without it, he would have paid a bargain-basement tax rate far below what most Americans pay each year.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration's reaction to this was, in typical fashion, all over the board. Initially, the White House appeared to confirm the accuracy of the document, pointing out, for example, that President Trump paid $38 million in taxes (by throwing in the Medicare and Social Security taxes Mr. Trump also disclosed on his tax return). But by early Wednesday, the nation's 45th president was back on Twitter describing the return as "fake news" and posing the question, "Does anybody really believe that a reporter, who nobody ever heard of, 'went to his mailbox' and found my tax returns?"
Well, yes, actually. A former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times, Mr. Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize winner who specializes in the U.S. tax code and has done considerable research into Mr. Trump's financial dealings. He is the author of a 2016 New York Times bestseller titled, "The Making of Donald Trump." How curious that the image-conscious president claims to have never heard of the fellow. But then, offering conflicting accounts, making outrageous statements on social media, distracting the public from more damning disclosures (the seemingly doomed Trumpcare plan, for example), attacking government "leakers" and prevaricating, prevaricating, prevaricating has been a big part of the Trump presidential playbook so far.
Much more ought to put on the record. Americans need to know the details of President Trump's business dealings whether through the disclosure of tax returns or some form of financial audit. Trump supporters like to say that a non-disclosure was "baked into" the election results, but that's not quite true. A recent Pew Research poll found 60 percent of Americans believe their president should release his returns. The current investigations into the Trump team's dealings with Russia and that country's hacking of the last election would be better informed if the public knew about what, if any, business ties exist between Mr. Trump, his family and his closest allies with that country.
We've said it before and we'll say it again: Could whatever is contained in the Trump tax returns really be more embarrassing than what the public now suspects they contain? It's getting harder and harder to believe the Trump administration can have a productive four years if every issue inevitably raises potential conflicts of interest and speculations that simply can't be resolved without knowing the numbers.