It’s been a staple of every presidential election since the Watergate era: Serious candidates releasing their tax returns. President Richard Nixon himself publicly released his tax returns while they were being audited in 1973, a controversy that led famously to Mr. Nixon telling reporters that year: “People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I am not a crook.”
Even so, Donald Trump now says he won’t release his tax returns because of an audit, despite saying a year and a half ago he “certainly” would.
Trump, clearly, doesn’t stand on tradition; he tramples it. That’s part of his appeal to supporters, who see in him a guy who tells it like it is, who upsets the establishment, who will win others over by sheer force of will. So, in one sense, it’s hardly surprising Trump thinks he shouldn’t have to adhere to common practice. Trump might even think this plays to an anti-establishment advantage; he has become more steadfast in his refusal since Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP nominee, called Mr. Trump’s failure to release his tax returns “disqualifying” in May.
Yet eight years of tax returns are already on Hillary Clinton’s campaign website, which notes the Clintons have made their tax returns public since 1977.
Releasing returns isn’t required of presidential candidates, of course. But it’s something Americans should demand. Failure to do so would set a bad precedent while releasing them, as Mr. Romney pointed out, can confirm “the veracity of a candidate’s representations regarding charities, priorities, wealth, tax conformance and conflicts of interest.”
In other words, it erases doubts, such as those sown on Fox News Monday night by columnist George Will, who said perhaps Mr. Trump isn’t releasing his returns because they may show “he is deeply involved in dealing with Russian oligarchs.” That’s “probably the reasonable surmise,” Will said.
Wednesday, a Trump aide said he “will not be releasing” his returns and emphasized it has “nothing to do with Russia.” Later, in a news conference, Mr. Trump tried to deflect attention to something of Clinton’s he would like to see: some 32,000 emails Clinton deleted, claiming they were personal, during a State Department investigation into a private email server she used as secretary of state. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Mr. Trump said.
While we’re talking about a foreign power hacking the computer networks of our political figures, maybe the Russians can find Trump’s tax returns.
We stoop to that level to make a point: Mr. Trump is running for the highest office in the United States, to be the leader of the free world. If he is elected, which is entirely possible, financial markets and foreign countries would be routinely influenced by his words. Shouldn’t he set a better example than saying facetiously or not that the Russians should compromise American security and elections?
Which brings us back to tax returns, and our solution: Mr. Trump and Ms. Clinton should agree that he will release his tax returns and she will release the transcripts of paid speeches she has given to big banks and others. Clinton has already said she would “look into” making those remarks public.
A CNN analysis in February found that Hillary Clinton earned more than $21 million from 92 paid speeches from 2001 until she launched her campaign last year, including at least $1.8 million from at least eight speeches to big banks.
Neither candidate has to produce these documents. But in this election, it’s still essential.
This editorial originally appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune.