President Donald Trump and his apologists have concocted an excuse for his refusal to release his tax returns. They claim that voters, by electing Trump president in 2016, gave him a mandate to keep his returns private. The tax question “was already litigated during the election,” acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney declared in a Fox News interview on Sunday. “Voters knew the president could have given his tax returns. They knew that he didn’t. And they elected him anyway.” On Monday, Trump’s deputy press secretary, Hogan Gidley, repeated that Democrats had “litigated this in 2016” and that voters had rejected their arguments. On Wednesday, Trump said the public had cleared him. “I got elected last time with this same issue,” said Trump, “because, frankly, the people don’t care.”
Candidates for president should release their taxes regardless of public opinion, because every voter has the right to know whether the country’s most powerful officeholder has financial conflicts of interest. Trump’s vast holdings and his shady business history make that concern all the more apt. But for now, let’s stick to a simpler question: Is it true that voters gave Trump a mandate to hide his tax returns? No, it’s false. Every poll shows that Americans think he should release his returns—and that if he doesn’t, Congress should pry the returns from him.
Looking back over the past three years, I found roughly 20 surveys on this subject. In each one, most respondents said Trump should cough up his returns. In 2016, the question was posed in various ways, always with the same result. “Do you think it is necessary for presidential candidates to publicly release their tax returns, or don’t you think that’s necessary?” Necessary, 59 percent to 38 percent. “Do you think it is necessary for Donald Trump to publicly release his tax returns, or don’t you think that is necessary?” Necessary, 59 percent to 37 percent. “Do you think Donald Trump should publicly release his tax returns, or not?” Should, 74 percent to 21 percent. “Do you think Donald Trump should or should not release his tax returns for public review?” Should, 73 percent to 24 percent.
Polls taken this year show that little has changed. “Do you think Donald Trump should publicly release his tax returns, or not?” Should, 64 percent to 29 percent. “Do you think Donald Trump should or should not release his tax returns for public review?” Should, 67 percent to 27 percent. “Do you think Donald Trump should or should not release his tax returns to the public?” Should, 56 percent to 27 percent. “Do you think Trump has a responsibility to publicly release his tax returns, or does he not have this responsibility?” Has a responsibility, 64 percent to 32 percent.
Many people who voted for Trump in 2016 expressly rejected the idea that in doing so they were authorizing him to hide his returns. In an August 2016 Quinnipiac University survey, more than a third of respondents who said they were inclined to vote for Trump also said he should release his returns. In a September 2016 CNN poll, half the people who said they intended to vote for Trump said he should disclose his tax forms. In a May 2016 Washington Post/ABC News poll, Republicans were evenly split on whether Trump should release his returns. In the CNN poll, a slight plurality of Republicans said he should release them. In an August 2016 Quinnipiac survey, 62 percent of Republicans said he should do so.
This dissident faction of Trump supporters persists. In a HuffPost/YouGov poll taken a week ago, 28 percent of respondents who voted for Trump said he should release his returns. In a CNN poll taken last month, 37 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Americans who said they approved of Trump’s job performance also said he should release his taxes.
It’s true that during the 2016 campaign, Trump and the Democrats litigated, in a political sense, whether he should produce his tax forms. Voters elected Trump, but they rejected his arguments on that issue. One argument, for instance, was privacy. In June 2016, a CNBC poll asked voters whether Trump “should release his tax returns because the public has a right to know about his financial affairs,” or whether he “should not release his tax returns because his income and financial affairs are no one’s business but his own.” Thirty-one percent of voters agreed with Trump that it was nobody else’s business. But twice as many, 62 percent, said the public had a right to know. Trump also pleaded that he couldn’t release his returns because they were under audit. In the September 2016 CNN survey, only 33 percent of voters bought that excuse. Most said he was “trying to hide something.”
If Trump thinks Democrats will lose a political fight over his tax forms, he’s mistaken. In January, a Post/ABC poll asked the public whether “Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives should or should not use their congressional authority to obtain and release Trump’s tax returns.” Respondents said the Democrats should do so, 60 percent to 35 percent. In March, a Quinnipiac poll asked, “If President Trump refuses to release his tax returns, do you think that Congress should investigate the situation, or not?” Again, respondents said yes, 57 percent to 38 percent. And in a Politico/Morning Consult poll taken a week ago, 51 percent of Americans endorsed “Democrats’ efforts to obtain President Trump’s tax returns.” Only 36 percent opposed such efforts.
Trump thinks he can dismiss the congressional push for his tax returns as a partisan ploy. But the public sees a difference between matters such as Russian collusion, which have been investigated, and Trump’s taxes, which haven’t. In the January Post/ABC poll, only 38 percent of respondents said Democrats in the House should investigate whether Trump colluded with Russia, and only 40 percent said House Democrats should start impeachment proceedings. But 60 percent said the Democrats should obtain and release Trump’s tax returns.
The White House is correct: Trump’s concealment of his taxes was litigated during the election. But the result of that litigation wasn’t that voters bought Trump’s arguments. The result was that they gave him the job for other reasons, while rejecting his arguments on that issue. They wanted to see his taxes, and they still do. And if he doesn’t hand over his returns, they want Democrats to go get them.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus