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Tuesday, March 01, 2016

On Presidential Tax Returns

Last week, Mitt Romney suggested that presidential candidate Donald Trump hadn't released his tax returns yet because there was something--a "bombshell," according to Romney--hiding in them.

Ted CruzThen, over the weekend, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz released their tax returns. And both used the occasion to follow up on Romney's insinuation by explicitly calling out Trump's intransigence in not releasing his returns.

Now, there's no law requiring presidential candidates to release their tax returns. Rather, it's been a tradition since the 1970s for sitting presidents to release their tax returns, and that tradition has been bleeding into presidential candidates more and more. Still, neither Trump nor any other presidential candidate has a legal obligation to release tax returns.

Marco RubioAnd the current crop of presidential candidates have bought into the tradition in wildly different ways; in fact, there appear to be three different types of disclosers when it comes to the current crop of presidential candidates: the full discloser, the partial discloser, and the nondiscloser. Without delving into the details of candidates' tax returns here, a quick taxonomy of the current crop:

Full Disclosers

Hillary Clinton has released eight years of tax returns.[fn1] And she released her full tax return. For 2014,[fn2] that means she released a 44-page document. That means it has her 1040, but it also has all of the schedules and supplements that give a full picture of her income and deductions for the year. For example, on page 2 of the PDF, we can see that she took $5,159,242 of itemized deductions. And what were those itemized deductions? Page 33 shows us that $2,819,599 were in state taxes and $3,022,700 were for charitable deductions. And page 33 tells us how those state taxes and charitable deductions were divided.[fn3]

Clinton is the only candidate still in the race who fully disclosed her tax returns.[fn4] Jeb Bush released his full returns from 1981-2014, and Carly Fiorina released her full returns from 2012-2013. Both are available at the Tax History Project.

Partial Disclosers

Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Bernie Sanders have each released partial tax returns.

Rubio's campaign website includes his Forms 1040 from 2000-2014. The thing is, the Form 1040 is basically just the first two pages of a person's tax return. It lays out the relevant numbers (gross income, adjusted gross income, deductions, stuff like that), but it doesn't tell how to get there. His 1040 tells us, for example, that Rubio took $53,329 in itemized deductions in 2014, but it doesn't tell us what those itemized deductions were. Did he give to charity? pay mortgage interest? pay state taxes? We don't have that information. (The one interesting thing is that Rubio doesn't pay his quarterly estimated taxes, and so he pays a couple thousand dollars of penalties basically every year.)

Cruz's website also just includes Forms 1040, from 2011-2014. Like Rubio, Cruz itemizes his deductions, and, like Rubio, we have no idea what those deductions are.

Finally, Sanders doesn't appear to have his tax returns disclosure on his website. The only place I could find it was, again, at the Tax History Project, which includes his 2014 tax return.[fn5] He provided a little more information than just his Form 1040, but not much: in addition to the 1040, he included (part of?) his Vermont tax return. It doesn't provide any additional information, though; like Rubio and Cruz, Sanders itemizes his deductions, and, like Rubio and Cruz, we have no idea what those deductions are.


Right now, Trump is the most vocal of the nondisclosers. But John Kasich and Ben Carson are still both in the race, and neither has disclosed his tax returns. Yet, at least.


[fn1] You can find another eight years of her returns at the Tax History Project.

[fn2] Note that her 2014 return, as with all of the candidates, is her most recent return; tax returns for 2015 aren't due until April 15, 2016.
[fn3] Well, kind of, at least. $3 million of her charitable donations were to the Clinton Family Foundation. And, while Clinton didn't include the tax returns for the Clinton Family Foundation on her campaign website, they're publicly available, including at Guidestar.

[fn4] At least, as of 3:40 pm Central time on February 29, when I'm writing this.

[fn5] He apparently released it at the request of the Washington Post.

Posted by Sam Bruson on March 1, 2016 at 10:03 AM in Tax | Permalink


Why wouldn't a candidate file (and release) a plausible but properly curated return and later file a more-mercenary amended (not released) return?

Posted by: bc | Sep 14, 2016 11:54:15 PM

johnq, it doesn't bother me. And it doesn't bother me for two reasons. First, it seems to be a relatively common political move to pressure candidates (who have no legal obligation to disclose their tax returns) to comply with the norm that has developed. Romney faced similar pressure from rivals in 2012, and this time was chosen as the person to carry the water.

Second, Romney did, in fact, disclose his returns, which is what let us see how he had funded his IRAs. Had he not made that initial move--or, for that matter, if he had only released the 1040s--we wouldn't know about how he funded his IRAs. (And, ftr, the tax community was tremendously interested in, and sometimes scandalized by, the IRA issue; to the extent it didn't get bigger play in the mainstream media, I suspect you're right that it wasn't amenable to soundbite journalism.)

Posted by: Sam Brunson | Mar 1, 2016 12:49:29 PM

Is Romney's insinuation that Trump's tax returns contain a scandalous revelation bothersome to others? Romney's financial disclosures very persuasively indicated that he was putting undervalued non-public securities in tax deferred accounts with nominal contribution limits. Nobody seemed to care about Romney's thing, because it is sort of difficult to conceptualize and it was only strong statistical evidence, not a straight up smoking gun, but still.

Posted by: johnq | Mar 1, 2016 11:11:56 AM

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