In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, then-candidate Donald Trump claimed that he couldn’t share his tax returns with the public because an IRS audit prevented him from doing so. According to a newly published book, however, this was a lie that Trump deliberately concocted to avoid releasing his taxes.
Every viable nominee for president since Richard Nixon — save for Trump — has shared several years of their tax records with the American public for the purpose of transparency. In 2016, Trump became the first candidate since the 1970s not to do so.
In “Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America,” New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman details how Trump and his staff came up with the lie on his plane during the 2016 campaign. Trump contemplated how he could “get [himself] out of this” in a discussion with his then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and his campaign press secretary Hope Hicks, Haberman wrote.
On the plane, “[Trump] leaned back, before snapping up to a sudden thought. ‘Well, you know my taxes are under audit. I always get audited,’ Trump said,” according to an excerpt from the book.
Trump believed that this was the perfect solution, Haberman wrote, as he’d “never not be under audit.”
Later on the campaign trail, Trump would claim that his lawyers had advised him against releasing his taxes, saying that it would be unwise to do so during an audit.
As several fact checks at the time (and in the years since) have pointed out, there is no law that prohibits individuals, including presidential candidates, from sharing their tax returns if they’re under an audit from the IRS. Instead, Trump was likely reluctant to share his tax returns because they’d paint him in a bad light — they could showcase, for example, that he was losing millions of dollars in revenue each year, or that he pays a substantially lower tax rate than most Americans with less wealth do annually.
Indeed, when the billionaire’s taxes eventually leaked in the fall of 2020, they showed that he had paid just $750 in income taxes in both 2016 and 2017 .
Months after Trump became president, he claimed that the American people no longer cared about his taxes. In reality, polling from his second presidential run in 2020 found that the vast majority of Americans (66 percent) agreed that he “should release his tax returns from earlier years.”