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Trump Rejects Calls for Transparency, Vowing to Keep Tax Returns & White House Visitor Logs Secret

StoryApril 18, 2017
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Susan Lerner

executive director of Common Cause New York. She was on the steering committee for the NYC Tax March.


The White House is facing new criticism over its lack of transparency, as President Trump is refusing to release his tax returns as well as logs of White House visitors. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump did not plan to release his tax returns, saying Trump was under an audit. Spicer’s comments came just two days after more than 100,000 people took to the streets on Saturday to call on Trump to release his taxes. Crowds gathered in more than a dozen cities from coast to coast, including Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago, Seattle, and in South Florida, where activists marched to Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago resort, where Trump was staying over the weekend. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are vowing not to work with Trump on reforming or rewriting the tax code unless Trump releases his own taxes. More than a dozen Republican lawmakers are also calling on Trump to release his taxes. For more, we speak with Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. She was on the steering committee for the NYC Tax March.


TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The White House is facing new criticism over its lack of transparency, as President Trump is refusing to release his tax returns as well as logs of White House visitors. On Monday, White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said Trump did not plan to release his tax returns, saying Trump was under an audit.

REPORTER: On the tax question, you’ve been asked about this, obviously, a thousand times.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Thank you.

REPORTER: You always talk about, well, under audit. The president says under audit. Is it time to say, once and for all, the president is never going to release his tax returns?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: We’ll have to get back to you on that.

REPORTER: You won’t—I mean, you see—I mean, really.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Really.

REPORTER: So he may?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: No. I said I’d have to get back to you on that. I think that we’re—he is still under audit. The statement still stands.

AMY GOODMAN: Trump is the first U.S. president in more than four decades to refuse to release his tax returns. The IRS says being under an audit does not prevent anyone, including the president, from releasing your tax returns. On Monday, Sean Spicer also defended the administration’s decision not to make public a log of White House visitors.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: The president wants to make sure that people can come in the same way they can go into a members of Congress’s office, provide information and details. And there’s people who want to be able to come have that conversation with—with members of the administration the same way that they would do with members of Congress, go into their office.

REPORTER: Why didn’t he take this opportunity to one-up the transparency game, if Obama was so bad at it?

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: Because it’s—because—I think I’m—I’m trying to explain that to you. I think that we recognize that there’s a privacy aspect to allowing citizens to come, express their views.

AMY GOODMAN: Spicer’s comments came just two days after more than 100,000 people took to the streets Saturday across the country to call on Trump to release his taxes. Crowds gathered in more than a dozen cities from coast to coast, including Washington, D.C., here in New York City, in Chicago, Seattle, and in South Florida, where activists marched to Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago resort, where Trump was staying over the weekend. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are vowing not to work with Trump on reforming or rewriting the tax code unless he releases his own taxes. More than a dozen Republican lawmakers are also calling on Trump to release his taxes.

Well, for more, we’re joined by Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. She’s on the steering committee for the NYC Tax March.

Susan Lerner, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what these mass protests were about, that clearly Donald Trump was upset by, because he tweeted about them.

SUSAN LERNER: Yes, I think we got under his skin. And that was one of the goals. The Tax March was about a very simple demand: Donald Trump should come clean with the American people and disclose his full tax returns, not just a sheet here or there from a random year, but the full long 1040 form for at least the last five to 10 years. He needs to answer questions that Americans across the country have as to whether he is working for the American people or he’s working for his own bottom line.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about what exactly it would mean. Talk about what the taxes would show. Talk about why this is so important.

SUSAN LERNER: Well, what we believe the taxes would show is who actually owns a piece of Donald Trump. There’s been speculation that—based on things that his son and others have said, that he owes substantial amounts of money to Russians who are close to the Kremlin, and that therefore he is subject to influence by the people who own his credit. It would tell us what sorts of deals he has in foreign countries. It would let us know who would be able to influence the 45th president so that he would be making decisions based on what’s best for the people who he owes money to or he is in business with, rather than what’s best for the American people. So it would help us determine if there’s foreign influence. It would help us determine if he is actually working first and foremost for the Americans, and whether he’s putting the best interest of the people that he is allegedly elected to represent first and foremost.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to something that has just recently come out. On Monday, President Trump called the president of Turkey, Erdogan, to congratulate him on winning the referendum. Trump has major business interests—

SUSAN LERNER: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: —in Turkey. Now, this is at a time when there’s mass criticism of this referendum, that could lead to a dictatorship in Turkey.

SUSAN LERNER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So Trump has major business interests in Turkey. In 2015, Trump even admitted that he had conflicts of interest in dealing with Turkey, while speaking on Steve Bannon’s radio show Breitbart News Daily.

DONALD TRUMP: Well, I also have—I have a little conflict of interest, because I have a major, major building in Istanbul, and it’s a tremendously successful job. It’s called Trump Towers, two towers instead of one. Not the usual one, it’s two. And I’ve gotten to know Turkey very well, and they’re amazing people. They’re incredible people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Donald Trump back in 2015.

SUSAN LERNER: And, you know, we have so many concerns regarding conflicts of interest, a president who refuses to acknowledge his ethical responsibilities to separate himself from his extensive business interests, to refuse to come clean with the American people as to how extensive those business interests actually are, and simply fueling endless speculation that he is not working for the American people. And there is absolutely no justification.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to NBC’s chief White House correspondent, Hallie Jackson, questioning President Trump in January about his taxes.

HALLIE JACKSON: Will you release your tax returns to prove what you’re saying about no deals in Russia?

PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I’m not releasing tax returns, because, as you know, they’re under audit.

HALLIE JACKSON: But every president since the ’70s—

PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: Oh, gee, I’ve never heard that. Oh, gee, I’ve never heard that. I’ve never heard that. You know, the only one that cares about my tax returns are the reporters. OK? They’re the only ones.

HALLIE JACKSON: You don’t think the American public is concerned about that?

PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP: But, no, I don’t think so. I won. I mean, I became president. No, I don’t think they care at all. I don’t think they care at all. I think you care. I think you care.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, so that was Donald Trump. Who else cares about it?

SUSAN LERNER: Well, Americans across the country, lawmakers, members of Congress. Last night, Congressman Donovan, who represents Staten Island, had a teletown hall. And he chimed in, in response to questions from his constituents, that he believes that Donald Trump should release his tax returns. Now, what’s really interesting about that is Congress actually has the power to order Donald Trump to release his tax returns. There’s no statute which requires a candidate to release tax returns when they’re running for president, but there is a law that was passed back in the 1920s, with the Teapot Dome scandal, that gives Congress the ability to require the disclosure of a president’s tax returns. And repeatedly, Congress has refused to exercise that power.

AMY GOODMAN: Repeatedly throughout history or throughout Donald Trump’s almost 100 days?

SUSAN LERNER: In the current presidency. I think it’s the first time in a long time that the ability has come up. It was used during the Nixon years to get Nixon’s tax returns. And the Congress has been asked repeatedly by Democratic members of the House to order, to take advantage of this law, and they have refused.

AMY GOODMAN: And then talk about what’s one of the lead stories in The New York Times today, "Trump’s Promise to Fix Tax Code Is Bogging Down: His Refusal to Release Returns Fuels Fight by Democrats."

SUSAN LERNER: Absolutely, and appropriately so. This is clearly a president who has no relationship to the truth, feels no obligation to follow through on the promises that he made in his campaign. They are hollow. He repeatedly said, "Oh, if only I could release my tax returns. Once I’m elected, of course I’ll release my tax returns." And now, of course, he’s spitting in everyone’s face to say, "I don’t have to bother. The election is over," as he tweeted at all of us on Sunday. Well, the election may be over, but his conflicts of interest continue to mount.

AMY GOODMAN: President Trump responded to the demonstrations by tweeting, "Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies yesterday. The election is over!" Trump’s claim is ironic, because, as NBC points out, Trump himself used paid actors to pose as rally attendees during his campaign.

SUSAN LERNER: Well, I think, Amy, you’ve put your finger on something that’s very obvious about the 45th president, that when he makes an accusation, we should first and foremost look at his own conduct. He’s not a person of great imagination. So he accuses people of things which he himself either has done or has contemplated doing. And it’s absolutely ironic that this guy, who paid people to show up and increase the number of his rallies, would accuse everyday Americans, who are concerned about the lack of integrity and ethics in this White House, that they would in some way have to be paid or urged to make their wishes very clearly known. Across the country, everyday Americans sent a clear message to Donald Trump, based on their own feelings: "Come clean, you chicken. Release your tax returns." That’s why the chicken balloons were so very popular across the country.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have Democrats, and increasingly Republicans are demanding that he release his tax returns. But then you have others who are saying, instead of protesting around his taxes, just don’t pay your taxes. There’s this long history of tax resistance going back to Henry David Thoreau, especially now, as President Trump announces he’s calling for $50-plus billion increase in the military budget and slashing diplomatic departments, like the State Department, and international aid organizations. What are your thoughts on that, Susan?

SUSAN LERNER: Well, I’ve been part of some interesting discussions here in New York City, where people are really trying to figure out what is the right thing to do. You know, there is a long history, as you’ve said, of tax resisters. But now there’s a broader discussion, which is: How do we redirect our tax dollars? Because what’s very interesting about Americans is Americans feel very strongly about paying their taxes. This is a country that has extremely high voluntary tax compliance. And one of the things that was chanted at the march in New York City was "We pay our taxes in this town." Another thing that we don’t know is whether Donald Trump is carrying his weight at all or whether he’s allowing working families, immigrants and the working poor to pay for civilization, which is what taxes are, after all. And he gets the benefit. We carry the burden.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you, Susan Lerner, about another subject: the Trump administration’s new policy to keep the logs of White House visitors secret. On Monday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended the policy.

PRESS SECRETARY SEAN SPICER: We’re following the law as both the Presidential Records Act and the Federal Records Act prescribe it. So, it’s the same policy that every administration had up until the Obama administration. And frankly, the faux attempt that the Obama administration put out, where they would scrub who they didn’t want put out, didn’t serve anyone well.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the White House logs.

SUSAN LERNER: So, the White House logs are a record of every single person who comes in and out of the White House. And the Obama administration made the determination that they were going to make those logs public to the maximum extent possible. It’s impossible to have absolute clarity on it. There are some people who have security concerns. But the Obama administration, while it wasn’t perfect disclosure, was better disclosure than we’ve seen previously. And they went so far as to put the public parts of the logs up on the White House website, so you, as an individual, could go on the White House website, you could put in the name of a CEO or a lobbyist or anybody else that you were interested in, and you could find out when and how many times that particular person visited the White House. In February, all of a sudden, that information disappeared off the White House website. This is a significant retrenchment and yet another way in which this particular administration refuses to come clean with the American people and absolutely is opaque, as opposed to transparent. What I think Saturday made very clear is that Americans care about having a transparent and accountable government. And this administration wants to be sure they don’t get it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you say about Sean Spicer saying we want to protect the privacy of citizens who want to meet with the president or people in the White House?

SUSAN LERNER: Now, that is truly extraordinary and a way in which to ensure that the swamp, that the 45th president claims that he was going to drain, simply increases, because the people who are being hidden are not ordinary citizens. They’re not everyday Americans coming in to petition the White House. They are the CEOs of large corporations. They are bankers. They are lobbyists. They are people who want something from the federal government and who basically want to pick the pockets of the taxpayers. And this is a way to hide the fact that this administration is in the pockets of wealthy special interests.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Susan Lerner, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Common Cause New York, was on—is on the steering committee of the NYC Tax March.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we go into a Denver church, where a Mexican immigrant has taken refuge with her children. Stay with us.

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