Among Donald J. Trump’s traits is his penchant for internalizing and personalizing things — insults, rejections and even policy disagreements. Trading slights seems essential to his personality, or at least something he feels is necessary for his presidential campaign.
Although it’s not something I feel comfortable with, the bombast of this campaign will not be remembered with the passage of time. Words come and go. The problem is what happens when his words lead him to do things that will reverberate long after the campaign is over.
To him, demands that he release his tax returns are just a ploy by his opponents and enemies to undermine his campaign. But that obstinacy will have consequences. Not releasing his tax returns would hurt transparency in our democratic process, and particularly in how voters evaluate the men and women vying to be our leaders. Whether he wins or loses, that is something our country cannot afford.
I suggest this not as a partisan against Mr. Trump. I am a conservative Republican who, though I have no stomach for his personal style and his penchant for regularly demeaning others, intends to support my party’s nominee because of the importance of filling the existing vacancy on the Supreme Court, and others that might open in the next four years. However, my ability to continue to do so will in part be driven by whether Mr. Trump keeps his word that he will release his tax records.
Let me explain why this issue is so important to me — and, indeed, much bigger than Mr. Trump and the current campaign for the presidency.
For one, it’s not really about his tax records per se. It’s about the American public’s ability to see other candidates’ returns. We have a long precedent in which every major-party presidential candidate since I was a child has released his returns. Break it now, and it stays broken.
The presidency is the most powerful political position on earth, and the idea of enabling the voter the chance to see how a candidate has handled his or her finances is a central part of making sure the right person gets the job. There is a reason a banker wants to see tax returns in determining whether you are eligible for a mortgage. You may talk a good game; tax returns don’t. Mr. Trump knows all this, which is why his team had his running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, disclose his tax returns — again, an accepted and expected practice in vetting potential vice-presidential candidates.
In fact, the real issue is not even about presidential tax returns. Rather, it’s about the hundreds of down-ballot races, in states and localities, and the transparency voters deserve here, too. I ran twice for governor of South Carolina, and I released my tax returns both times. To be frank, it felt a bit like a colonoscopy: I didn’t like it, but it was our tradition in South Carolina. The power of staying true to the precedent that had been set prevailed. If presidential candidates won’t release their tax returns, you can expect the same in the states. If a presidential nominee doesn’t do it, why should a candidate for governor?
And it matters in ways that aren’t immediately obvious. I once participated in a debate in Congress on raising the president’s salary. As it turned out, the debate wasn’t really about the president’s earnings in office — modern presidents wind up anything but poor — but instead about the pay scale for federal judges: Their pay was ultimately capped at a fixed range below the president’s, so for judges’ pay to rise, the president’s had to also. It was an important reminder: As with so many things in our country, the standards we set for the president determine what political standards we set for the rest of the country.
Finally, this is about taking Mr. Trump at his own word. He has certainly dodged and hedged on the subject recently, but many other times he has been remarkably clear that he would make his tax returns public. He consistently chided Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, for not releasing his returns sooner in his campaign. In May 2014, as Mr. Trump entertained the idea of running for president, he said, on television: “If I decide to run for office, I’ll produce my tax returns, absolutely, and I would love to do that.” Nothing has changed that should justify Mr. Trump’s changing his mind.
A maxim often attributed to Thomas Jefferson holds that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” Equipping voters with more, not less, information as they pick those who run for the highest offices in our land seems, to me, a reasonable requirement for anyone aspiring to those positions.