Donald Trump’s campaign denied Wednesday that the GOP nominee has any financial ties to Russia—but suggested that voters will simply have to take the candidate’s word on that, even while the consensus grows that the Kremlin was involved in the Democratic Party email hack.
Asked by CBS News whether Trump would release his tax returns to put voters’ minds at ease, his campaign manager stuck to the candidate’s they’re-just-going-to-have-to-trust-me script. “Mr. Trump has said that his taxes are under audit and he will not be releasing them,” Paul Manafort responded. “It has nothing to do with Russia, it has nothing to do with any country other than the United States and his normal tax auditing process.” Pressed again as to whether Trump has any “financial relationships with any Russian oligarchs,” Manafort offered more than a dozen words in place of a simple one-word no. “That’s what he said, that’s what I said,” the longtime GOP operative answered. “That’s obviously what our position is.”
First things first: Don’t be fooled by the audit excuse. There’s nothing stopping a candidate—or anyone else, for that matter—from releasing his returns while he is being audited, as Richard Nixon did back in the 1970s. (Nixon’s iconic “I’m not a crook” remark referred not to Watergate but rather to rumors of tax avoidance—which turned out to be true.) Beyond the questions about his Russian connections, Trump’s ongoing refusal to release his returns is a big deal in itself. The release of a candidate’s taxes, which is a political tradition that dates back roughly half a century, provides voters with valuable information about their potential presidents, including how they made their money, how much they donate to charity, and whether they have any potential conflicts of interest—i.e., answers to some of the most pressing questions Trump either won’t answer, won’t back up with any actual evidence, or has lied about. (The financial disclosures candidates file with the Federal Election Commission, meanwhile, can be so vague that they border on worthless, particularly for the ultra-rich like Trump.)
Matters are particularly troubling when it comes to Trump and Russia—though the release of Trump’s tax returns might go a long way toward making them less so. The New York Times reports that U.S. intelligence agencies are increasingly certain that the Russian government was behind the DNC hack, though the paper says that the U.S. government is “uncertain” whether it was just “fairly routine cyberespionage” or a part of a larger effort “to manipulate the 2016 presidential election.” Slate’s Franklin Foer makes a strong case that it is the latter, but regardless of the hackers’ intent, there is no such doubt about the intent of the group that published the emails. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has made it clear he would love to derail Clinton’s bid for president, and the release was clearly timed to cause trouble for her and her allies during this week’s Democratic convention, and it succeeded.
It’s worth noting, though, that releasing Trump’s tax returns wouldn’t completely put this issue to bed. Regardless of whether Trump’s statement is true—that he has no financial ties to Russia—it wouldn’t change the fact that Vladimir Putin has a clear interest in seeing Trump occupy the White House. It’s no wonder, then, that on Wednesday morning—several hours after Manafort’s interview—Trump did a 180 and went from claiming any talk of his involvement with Russia was ridiculous to asking the Kremlin for help finding the emails Clinton and her team deemed personal and deleted from her private server before turning over her State Department emails for archiving. “Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump said at a press conference, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
Elsewhere in Slate: The DNC Hack Is Watergate, but Worse