Dog Days and Donald’s Taxes

The Dog Days of Summer, that hot, humid period when the dog star, Sirius, rises and falls during the day, are normally a sleepy interlude in the political calendar.
Even in a presidential year, the freshly-minted nominees usually have the decency to take a break after the national political conventions until Labor Day, when the campaigns crank up full speed until election day. The Dog Days are supposed to a breather, when current and former Presidents can play golf on Martha’s Vineyard and harried campaign reporters can catch up on their overdue expense accounts.
Not this year.
In just this past crazy week, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton delivered “major economic addresses,” (have there ever been “minor” economic addresses?) Trump appeared to invite “Second Amendment people” to dispatch Hillary and asserted repeatedly that President Obama and Clinton were “founders” of the Islamic State terror group.
The Clinton campaign fought back with its latest, lawyerly response about her emails and Hillary herself leveled strong denunciations of Trump’s temperament and qualifications for the nation’s highest office.
The coverage of all this has been non-stop, exhaustive and exhausting, taking up newspaper space and airtime that should rightly be devoted to the Rio Olympics and the hot, hot weather.
But one perennial campaign element is missing this year: the public release of the Republican nominee’s tax returns.
Every major party presidential candidate since 1972 has made his returns public. You can find both Hillary and Bill Clinton’s 1040s online back to 2000. Most of the primary candidates issued theirs shortly after filing them in April.
So, what is Donald Trump hiding?
Speculation abounds: interest on loans from Russian oligarchs? Paltry charitable contributions? Less actual income than he claims? Huge debts? Why has he stubbornly refused to release his returns?
The most likely answer is that he pays little or no federal taxes to help fund the government that he proposes to lead. Very possibly zero.
That was the speculative conclusion of tax experts interviewed by The New York Times last week.
“I would expect he’s paying little or no tax,” Steven Rosenthal, a veteran tax lawyer, told The Times. Other experts pointed out that this was likely, and probably legal, given the rich deductions and depreciation that real estate development offers.
Trump himself seemed to confirm zero taxes as his goal when he told George Stephanopoulos of ABC: “I fight hard to pay as little tax as possible.” Asked to name his tax bracket, he snapped: “None of your business.”
Zero or minimal taxes, even on a very large income, could pose a political, rather than legal, problem for Trump. Four years ago Mitt Romney was burned when he reluctantly released his returns and disclosed that he had paid only 14.1 per cent in federal taxes on an income in excess of $20 million. His modest bracket was legal, but politically awkward, contributing to his wealthy, privileged image. At the time, Trump was among the Republican voices arguing that Romney had no choice but to release his returns.
Sensing a political opening, Hillary Clinton released her 2015 personal tax return on Friday, revealing that she and her husband paid an effective federal tax rate of 34.2 per cent on $10.5 million in income from speeches, royalties and the like.
Clinton challenged Trump to do the same, charging that his refusal “defies decades-old tradition of disclosure” by Presidential candidates.
Trump will likely ignore her, arguing again that his returns are under audit. But another wealthy taxpayer, Warren Buffet, a Clinton supporter, said last week that he, too, is being audited and would be happy to meet Trump anywhere anytime to jointly disclose their respective returns.
“You’re only afraid if you’ve got something to be afraid about,” Buffet said.
None of this back and forth is likely to make much difference in November. But if Trump does change his mind and releases his returns, even in the Dog Days of Summer, it will pull back the curtain on a Presidential candidate the public still knows little about.

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