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On Dec. 30, as Washington shut down for the Christmas-New Year holidays and Republicans prepared to take over the House of Representatives, Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, in their final days of power, released copies of former President Donald Trump's tax returns from 2015 through 2020.
Democratic lawmakers had fought for years to get the documents. They claimed they needed them not for partisan political reasons but in order to oversee the Internal Revenue Service more effectively. The "legislative purpose" rationale was always a joke; everyone knew that, once they had the returns, Democrats would release them to the public in hopes of setting off a wave of negative stories about Trump. And that is exactly what they did.
Now, with the returns public, it is worth recalling the years of anticipation and sensational theorizing that defined the effort to pry loose Trump's tax records. The combined forces of the Resistance, the Democratic Party and assorted NeverTrumpers engaged in an extended campaign of heavy breathing about what deep, dark secrets might be in the returns.
There are many examples, but to take just one: In July 2018, Trump traveled to Helsinki, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a joint news conference, Trump refused to accept the American intelligence community's assessment that Russia tried to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election. It was an appalling moment; investigators ranging from former Republican House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes to former Trump-Russia special counsel Robert Mueller had by that time concluded that Russia did, indeed, try to interfere. It is just a fact.
But of course Trump's adversaries -- the Resistance-Democrats-NeverTrumper forces -- had taken the story another step to accuse Trump of colluding with Russia. That is what the Mueller investigation was about. And after a long probe, Mueller could never establish that collusion even took place, much less who might have been involved in it. Trump had been unfairly accused and was in a state of perpetual resentment about it. In Helsinki, he would not give an inch to a press corps that had engaged in nonstop speculation about collusion.
That was the story behind the scene at the Trump-Putin newser. And in the way those things worked, it led to even more accusations of collusion: Putin must have something on Trump. There's no other explanation for his performance in the news conference. And some of the most feverish theorizers believed the answer would lie in ... the tax returns.
"The president has refused to release his tax returns, but these bizarre actions that he has taken, which seem so to indicate that President Putin has something over President Trump, something personal, and it might be financial," said Sen. Charles Schumer, then the Senate minority leader. "We need to see the tax returns."
The day after the news conference, a top anti-Trump theorist, MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, interviewed another anti-Trump theorist, a writer named Tim O'Brien. O'Brien's claim to fame is that 18 years ago, he wrote a book about Trump. Trump sued him, and as part of the litigation, O'Brien was allowed to see some of Trump's tax returns. But he was not allowed to make public any of the details. So for the last several years, O'Brien has written articles like, "I've Seen Trump's Tax Returns and You Should, Too," suggesting, but not specifically saying, that the returns contained some evidence of wrongdoing.
It was no surprise that O'Brien jumped on the Helsinki story with a column headlined, "A New Reason for Trump to Release His Tax Returns: Helsinki." "Putin might have information about Trump's finances that the president would rather keep under wraps," O'Brien wrote. "Imagine if Trump were acquiescent to Putin because financial favors were exchanged, for example, for policy reversals involving the lifting of economic sanctions on Russia or supporting Russia's military annexation of parts of Ukraine. In that context, Trump's finances -- and his tax returns -- touch on national security and the public interest."
That evening, O'Donnell teased the O'Brien interview by saying "the reporter who has seen Donald Trump's tax returns" would explain that "how much control Vladimir Putin actually has over Donald Trump might all be described in the Trump tax returns." When the interview began, O'Brien said, "There's an issue as to why he [Trump] keeps making excuses for Vladimir Putin, and we know in his business history he has sold tens of millions of dollars' worth of condos to Russian oligarchs and high-end Russian homebuyers." The theorizing went on from there.
That was then. Fast-forward to today. Trump's tax returns are now public. And do they reveal a secret relationship with Putin? The short answer is no.
First, it's important to remember that two years after that MSNBC program, in September 2020, the New York Times received a huge trove of Trump tax information and reported that it did not "reveal any previously unreported connections to Russia." So now, the House Ways and Means Committee has released an enormous pile of tax returns, officially received from the IRS, thousands and thousands and thousands of pages, and you can read one media report after another and never see the word "Russia" or the name "Putin."
The returns show how Trump reported huge losses over many years, how one year he could pay $1 million in federal income tax and the next year $0. They show he had a lot of foreign bank accounts, including one in China -- but not in Russia. They show Trump aggressively used loopholes in the tax code created by Congress to benefit real-estate developers. They show, in short, that Trump did what he said he did, which was to use every possible benefit in the tax laws to minimize the amount of tax he had to pay. Was it all scrupulously by-the-book? Democrats want the IRS to examine the returns more closely, and perhaps they will deliver a judgment later.
But what about the big reveal? What about the secrets of Trump and Putin hidden deep inside the tax returns? What about the national security implications of Trump's relationship with Russia, also in the returns? What about all the fevered speculation about Trump and Russia that would be confirmed in that big stack of IRS documents?