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Here’s Why Donald Trump ‘Not Releasing’ His Taxes Could Be Disastrous for his Candidacy

Looks like Donald Trump won’t be releasing his taxes after all.

On Wednesday, top Trump aide Paul Manafort said that the Republican presidential candidate “will not be releasing” his taxes. Manafort made the statement on “CBS This Morning.” Manafort has said in the past that it was unlikely Trump would release his taxes before the election, but this was the first time that he has that Trump won’t release his tax returns.

“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,” Manafort told CBS This Morning.

In a response to a question from Fortune, Trump spokesperson Hope Hicks on Wednesday morning responded that the status of Trump’s tax returns had not changed. “Mr. Trump is undergoing a routine audit. Once the audit is complete he plans to release his returns,” Hicks wrote in an email.

But Hicks declined to comment on the status of the audit, and whether it is likely to be finished before the election.

Not releasing his taxes seems to be a big gamble for Trump, as we reported back in March. At the time, we said delaying his taxes could be disastrous for his presidential bid. But not releasing them at all could be even worse, by historical standards, if that is possible. But indeed, Trump has reinvented and rewritten the rules of running for president.

Still, it’s hard to see how Trump can keep marketing himself as the truth-speaking hero to the working folks if he balks at letting those same voters compare his grandiose financial claims—a pillar of his campaign—to the financial facts.

Presidential candidates have no legal obligation to make their tax information public. But the tradition is so strong that every nominee, and virtually every major contender, in recent decades has complied. The practice of presidents’ regularly publishing their tax returns started with Richard Nixon in 1969. Not all followed suit: Gerald Ford never provided his IRS filings.

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Since 1980, though, every party nominee has produced a tax return, and all but three have released their returns well before the balloons descended at the convention.

An early exception was Ronald Reagan, who didn’t comply until after winning the nomination that year. Subsequently, it became standard practice to act much earlier. In 1988, both President George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis published their returns before their conventions. Four years later, President Bush and frontrunner Bill Clinton made their 1991 filings public right around tax time, April 16 and 18 respectively, starting a long-standing tradition that’s been followed to this day. In fact, the only major candidate who refused to release his return was maverick billionaire H. Ross Perot. But if he had, perhaps he would have done even better than the 18.9% of the vote as an independent.

In 2012, Obama released his return for 2011 at the customary time, mid-April. But Mitt Romney didn’t follow suit. In January, he’d made his 2010 filing public, and furnished an estimate of his expected income and tax bill for 2011. But his apparent stonewalling on the 2011 return hobbled his campaign, providing an opening for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to wrongly accuse the candidate of failing to pay any taxes for years.

Romney finally provided the return in late September of 2012, three weeks after he was nominated. The Democrats assailed his privileged portfolio of private equity and derivative investments, and pounded Romney for paying just 14% of his gross income; even his rate on taxable income was slim for presidential candidate, at 21%. The damage was done. The delay heightened scrutiny of the returns when they finally appeared, and the narrative of Romney as an out-of-touch rich guy kept rolling.


So it’s remarkable given all that history that Trump would decide not to release his tax returns. But Trump seems to want to keep playing the rebellious outsider and refuse. Of course, this may be protecting Trump from possibly unmasking that he’s worth a fraction of what he’s been saying, and is really guilty of what Romney wasn’t, paying little or no federal income taxes.

Trump has to hope that he can convince his loyalists that tax secrecy is part of skewering the “establishment.” The argument will be a harder sell with the independent and mainstream Republicans who pay a lot of taxes, and want proof their leaders do the same.