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A History of Mitt Romney’s Stances on Releasing Tax Returns

January 18, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney came under increased pressure Wednesday from allies and opponents to release his tax information in advance of Saturday's Republican primary in South Carolina. Judy Woodruff discusses how Romney has previously handled the tax issue with Michael Kranish of The Boston Globe, then speaks with Gwen Ifill.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney came under increased pressure from friends, as well as opponents, to release his tax information today, in advance of Saturday’s Republican primary in South Carolina.

For the Romney campaign, today was about trying to change the subject away from the taxes he pays. But it wasn’t so easy, after the former Massachusetts governor and businessman acknowledged he pays about 15 percent of his income in taxes.

MITT ROMNEY (R): My income comes overwhelmingly from — from investments made in the past, rather than ordinary income, or rather than earned annual income.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This morning, in Winnsboro, S.C., former House Speaker Newt Gingrich joked that he would re-brand his flat tax proposal in honor of Romney.

NEWT GINGRICH (R): Ironically, it turned out yesterday that Mitt Romney pays about a 15 percent rate, so we’re going to name our flat tax the Mitt Romney 15 percent flat tax.

(LAUGHTER)

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican front-runner also faced pressure to release his income tax returns now, instead of waiting until April.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a top Romney supporter, spoke this morning on NBC’s “Today Show.”

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R): If you have tax returns to put out, you know, you should put them out. You put them out sooner, rather than later, because it’s always better in my view to have complete disclosure, and especially when you’re the frontrunner.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Gingrich said today he would release his tax returns tomorrow.

NEWT GINGRICH: We do know – we’ve gone through this three times now to make sure we’re good. I paid at a 31 percent rate. We’re pulling together the documents. We hope to get it out some time tomorrow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, Romney has never released his tax returns going back to 1994, and a failed bid to unseat Sen. Ted Kennedy.

Instead, he challenged the veteran Democrat to release his returns to prove he had nothing to hide. Today, Romney tried to move to other issues. In Spartanburg, S.C., he charged, Gingrich has overstated his role in creating jobs as House speaker in the 1990s.

MITT ROMNEY: Government doesn’t create jobs. It’s the private sector that creates jobs.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

MITT ROMNEY: Congressmen taking responsibility or taking credit for helping create jobs is like Al Gore taking credit for the Internet.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, elsewhere, Rick Santorum accused Gingrich of arrogance for urging others to quit the race, so conservatives can coalesce around him.

RICK SANTORUM (R): Everybody who wants to be in this race should be in this race. And I’m not going to be someone who’s going to point my finger at someone and says: I’m better than you. You should get out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, meanwhile, held a pair of meet-and-greets in South Carolina, while Texas Congressman Ron Paul returned to Washington, so he could vote against raising the national debt ceiling.

For more on how Mitt Romney has handled the tax issue, we’re joined by Michael Kranish, the deputy bureau chief of The Boston Globe and co-author of the book “The Real Romney.”

Michael Kranish, thank you for being with us.

Let me first just say, this is not the first time Romney’s income and taxes have been an issue when he’s run for office, is it?

MICHAEL KRANISH, The Boston Globe: No, it’s not, Judy.

You know, really, if you look back in the clippings, for 18 years, when Romney first ran for the U.S. Senate in 1994, he challenged Edward Kennedy, his opponent, to release his income taxes, and questioned whether Kennedy had something to hide. Sounds very familiar.

Kennedy did not release his taxes, but Romney said, if Kennedy would, he would do so himself the same day. It just never happened, so he didn’t release his tax returns back in 1994. And then again when Romney ran for governor in 2002, he was asked about his income taxes and he said he was not going to release them for — quote — “privacy reasons.”

The Globe has asked Romney for his tax returns really for almost two decades on a regular basis, whenever he’s run for public office, and he’s always refused. So it’s an issue that has been around for a very long time. There’s a saying in politics about get it out, get it out early. In this case, he’s kept it private, hasn’t released it.

Now he says he’s going to do so, but we’ll wait and see what happens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are the questions people have had about his income, the money he’s made, and the kind of taxes he’s paid?

MICHAEL KRANISH: Well, there are a lot of questions, and they mainly come up because he ran Bain Capital for 15 years, from 1984 to 1999.

So I read today that Romney had said, well, if he does release his taxes this April, he intended to release one year of taxes from last year. And that, obviously, will not satisfy a lot of people.

You know, this apparently started according to the White House when George Romney, Mitt’s father, ran and released 12 years of tax returns. So if Mitt Romney in April releases only one year of tax returns, it will not cover the time period when he was at Bain Capital. And really that’s when the questions would be raised.

You’d want to see what he was doing, where specific profits came from during those years. So last year’s tax returns really wouldn’t show most of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the questions would be not only how much did he make, but what kind of investments did he make them off of and other questions about how he — for example, charitable donations.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Well, we know he gives 10 percent to the Mormon Church. I mean that’s something that he has to do and he certainly has done, and may well be more generous than the 10 percent. So, that’s a different issue.

As far as his tax rate, it’s zero surprise to anybody who’s followed Mitt Romney’s career that his income tax level is basically the capital gains tax rate. So when he left Bain Capital, the income tax rate was about 39 percent and capital gains tax rate was about 20 percent at that time, and now it’s lower. So, in the book, we write about how he was paying that lower tax rate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can you expand any more on what explanation Romney has given for not releasing — I mean, you said, in 2002, he said for privacy reasons. Has he expanded on that at all?

MICHAEL KRANISH: Well, as far as I know, those are the reasons that he’s given. You know, there may be a lot of information there that would be really interesting.

For our book, I looked into the 15 years of deals at Bain Capital. And it’s very hard to determine how some of those deals worked for Mitt Romney personally because we don’t know what his exact personal profit was. So, for example, there’s a deal I write about at a very secure company where one of his partners said Mitt may personally have made as much as $40 million.

That’s the kind of thing that you would know best from a tax return, because not only did Bain Capital invest, but, at Bain Capital, partners were allowed to make what’s called side investments. So if you liked a deal you were doing with the investment group and the fund, you could also take your own personal money and co-invest it in a sort of parallel investment.

That’s the kind of thing you would only know about from a tax return. So there may be all sorts of really interesting answers about specific companies that Romney himself personally profited from, and you could then link those to what happened to those companies. Were factories closed at those companies? Were jobs lost or created? You could do that much more of a transparent look at what Romney did and how he personally profited at those companies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, clearly, a lot of questions.

Michael Kranish with The Boston Globe, we thank you very much.

MICHAEL KRANISH: Thanks for having me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to our Gwen Ifill, who has been following the campaign today in South Carolina.

Gwen, you are in Rock Hill. And we’ve just learned there’s a new CNN-TIME poll showing Romney’s lead shrinking in South Carolina. You’ve just come from a Romney event. How is he reacting to all this new focus on his taxes?

GWEN IFILL:  That’s right, Judy. His lead has gone from 20 points to 10 points, still a significant lead, but obviously he feels Newt Gingrich beginning to breath down his back.

Newt Gingrich has been saying, you know, listen, my plan is to have a 15 percent tax rate for everyone, and so therefore we just want to do what Mitt Romney did, but Mitt Romney should release his taxes.

It’s that tax return issue which seems to have some resonance from the — with the people we’re talking to on the ground here. But we can also see that both candidates are feeling the heat. Newt Gingrich is attacking Romney, calling him stupid and silly, or at least calling his attacks that.

And Romney has unleashed a whole bunch of surrogates and press releases and press calls today attacking Newt Gingrich. So what we see here is a tightening race. I haven’t heard anyone yet who thinks that Romney still won’t win here on Saturday, but there is more nervousness now than there was this time last week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Gwen, you mentioned what people on the ground are saying. What are the voters, the people of South Carolina — how are they reacting to all this kerfuffle over the taxes?

GWEN IFILL:  Well, Judy, there’s no question that this debate certainly focused people’s minds.

Newt Gingrich had a pretty good night. He at least poked through in a way that maybe a lot of voters hadn’t been paying attention to. The dilemma right now for Newt Gingrich and for Rick Santorum and Rick Perry is that they are splitting three ways that conservative/evangelical vote here in South Carolina that helped Mike Huckabee do so well here four years ago among Republicans.

So, as a result, even though Newt Gingrich is closing the gap, he still has other people who are peeling off, including Ron Paul, peeling off substantial portions, 10, 12, 15 percent, which will make it hard for him to catch up with Mitt Romney.

But I talked to a political science professor today who said, Mitt Romney’s problem is he says something like, oh, I don’t make a lot of money in speeches. Well, he made more than $300,000 in speeches last year, which for most South Carolinians is a lot of money, maybe what they make in 10 years. So that sort of thing resonates in a way that arcane discussions about private equity might not.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Santorum, who got that endorsement a days ago from that evangelical group meeting in Texas, has not yet paid off for him?

GWEN IFILL: You know, it’s interesting.

Rick Santorum reacted kind of angrily to someone’s suggestion that he and Rick Perry drop out of the race. Now, Newt Gingrich was saying today, I’m not saying they should drop out. I was dead in July and June, so I know what it means to hang in there.

But on the other hand, Rick Santorum is also saying, listen, I’m not the guy who’s been losing these races, so I’m sticking in.

Right now, it looks like he is in it, at least he says, through Florida. Of course, I think this time, last week, Jon Huntsman was telling us the same thing. So we are going to wait and see how this plays out. But they feel that there is fertile ground here in South Carolina for the kind of message that they’re bringing.

And they hope that Mitt Romney has some weakness that they can exploit.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Gwen, just remind us, those of us who paid a lot of attention to Iowa and New Hampshire, what’s different about South Carolina, other than the fact it’s in the South?

GWEN IFILL:  Well, because it’s in the South, I think 60 percent of Republican voters here are — call themselves conservative or very conservative.

So if you are Mitt Romney and people are attacking you, as Newt Gingrich has, for being a moderate, for being more like Obama — I saw a new ad that the super PAC that Newt Gingrich’s supporters have put out today which, in an animated way, they imagine a debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in which Barack Obama says, Mitt Romney and I are a lot alike, and Mitt Romney, the animated Mitt Romney, can’t get a word in edgewise.

That’s the kind of issue that they want to make, because they know that, more than anything else, whether it’s pro-Romney, anti-Gingrich, pro-Gingrich, anti-Gingrich, they — all these Republicans really want to defeat Barack Obama.

So the worst thing you can say about a candidate, a Republican candidate, here is that you’re like Barack Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Our own Gwen Ifill in Rock Hill, S.C., following the campaign right up until the primary on Saturday.

Thanks, Gwen.

GWEN IFILL:  Thanks, Judy.