President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign was dealt a surprise blow on Sunday, September 27, when The New York Times revealed that the paper had obtained his tax returns for almost 20 years — including his first term in office.
The documents have been the subject of rampant speculation since Trump declared his candidacy in 2015, and he has consistently refused to release them to the public, often claiming, falsely, that he cannot because they are under audit. The revelations within the Times report on the president’s finances indicated that Trump owes hundreds of millions in loans, has operated many of his businesses at a loss for years and only paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2017. Further, Trump paid zero dollars in taxes for years before that, according to the Times report.
With Trump himself likely not the leaker, speculation raged online over the weekend as to who provided The Times with his financial documents. Liberals online suggested the leaker should receive a Nobel Prize nomination, while many conservatives were enraged and suggested the person should be prosecuted.
Here’s what you need to know:
The Times Refuses to Reveal Its Source(s) for Fear of ‘Jeopardizing’ Them
Dean Baquet, The Times’ executive editor, said in a note published along with the newspaper’s findings that he would not reveal the sources behind the story and that The Times would not publish the actual records. Whoever leaked the documents took “enormous personal risks to help inform the public,” Baquet said, and the paper does not want to endanger them:
But the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment allows the press to publish newsworthy information that was legally obtained by reporters even when those in power fight to keep it hidden. That powerful principle of the First Amendment applies here.
In May 2019, The Times published a report based on Trump’s IRS tax transcripts spanning 1985 to 1994, indicating that he lost $1.17 billion in those 10 years. The newspaper got the information then from “someone who had legal access to it,” who they also declined to identify.
In 2017, investigative reporter David Ray Johnston obtained two pages of Trump’s 2005 return and shared them with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, although the information turned out to be relatively anti-climactic.
It’s a Felony for an IRS Employee to Leak Someone’s Tax Returns, Although Law Enforcement Can Obtain Them With a Court Order
An IRS employee releasing someone’s tax returns, except in a small number of circumstances, is a felony, according to the service’s website.
Penalties can range from a $5,000 file to up to five years in prison, and the person whose returns are leaked can also sue for civil damages.
Exceptions to the law include releasing the returns to state tax agencies, sharing them in whole or part with other entities if the IRS determines it needs to in order to find more information about the taxpayer, and to one’s attorney or other designee.
Also, with a court order, law enforcement agencies can obtain the returns in the course of prosecuting charges not related to taxes, which would be under the IRS’s purview.
Trump Is Under Investigation for Tax Fraud in New York & the Manhattan DA Could Have Obtained His Returns
Trump has two top law enforcement agencies currently bearing down on him, with investigations into tax fraud coming from State Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance.
James’ office is looking into whether the Trump Organization inflated the values of its assets to obtain more favorable loan conditions, The Times reported. It is unknown how much information on Trump’s finances James’ office already holds.
Vance, meanwhile, has seen major boons to his tax fraud investigation in the past months, including a Supreme Court ruling in July that rejected Trump’s claims of immunity from state investigations, the Washington Post reported.
And last week, a federal appeals court heard arguments by Trump’s lawyers that Vance had political motives for seeking his tax returns and had made overly broad requests. The court did not rule on whether to block the release of the tax records, but the hearing did not go well for Trump’s team, according to the Hill.
Appeals Court Judge Pierre N. Leval even suggested to Vance’s team that he did not see any reason why they couldn’t obtain the returns already, despite the legal fight.
Conservative media circles raised the possibility on Sunday that Vance’s office already has the returns and provided them to The New York Times.
Federalist Co-Founder Sean Davis Said It Was Likely Vance Who Leaked the Tax Returns, Snarking, ‘It’s a Real Mystery’
Sean Davis, a co-founder of the pro-Trump magazine The Federalist, said Monday morning that Vance’s office had to have been the leaking entity, and many of his followers agreed.
“Gee, I wonder who might have illegally leaked Trump’s tax information to the New York Times,” Davis said. “Could it possibly be the left-wing NYC district attorney who happens to run the only entity that just got access to Trump’s tax returns? It’s a real mystery.”
Per federal law, it is a crime for a state or federal employee to release someone’s tax returns except in certain circumstances. If The Times received the tax returns from a third party, however, the paper would likely be in the clear, under the First Amendment, Law and Crime reported.
The Tax Returns Could Also Have Been Leaked by Someone in the Trump Organization or a Bank Employee
Tax law scholar Andy Grewal live-tweeted his reading of the Times report on Sunday and offered some speculation into how the newspaper obtained Trump’s tax returns.
“I would guess that a bank employee leaked it rather than an IRS agent,” Grewal said, later adding, “I would guess that it would breach some type of confidentiality agreement. Perhaps that is why the [Times] won’t reveal their source.”
Given that the Times said the returns were given to them by someone with legal access, they could possibly have come from someone within the Trump organization as well.
Grewal also told Law & Crime that a state revenue agent or IRS agent could also have leaked the returns.
“Depending on the circumstances, the leak could violate the law, an ethical rule, a disclosure agreement, or some other obligation,” he said. “But one is left to speculate.”
Trump himself has alternated between calling the Times’ story “fake” and claiming that the returns were obtained illegally.
“The fake news media, just like election time 2016, is bringing up my taxes and all sorts of other nonsense with illegally obtained information and only bad intent,” Trump said. “I paid many millions of dollars in taxes but was entitled, like everyone else, to depreciation & tax credits.”
Trump went on to claim that, contrary to the Times story, he is “extremely under-leveraged,” with “very little debt compared to the value of assets.”