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Why transparency — on Trump’s taxes, visitors and family business — matters

April 18, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
In the Trump administration, questions of transparency start with the president's tax returns and why he's not releasing them. But there are also questions about White House visitor logs and who's advising the president. John Yang reports and Judy Woodruff talks to Richard Painter of the University of Minnesota and Noah Bookbinder of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s Tax Day, I’m sure you know, and President Trump is facing renewed questions over public disclosure issues that dogged him on the campaign trial.

Our John Yang begins our coverage.

JOHN YANG: For President Trump, questions about transparency start with his taxes, and why he’s breaking with tradition and not releasing his returns.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer:

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: We’re under the same audit that has existed, and so nothing has changed.

JOHN YANG: In fact, presidents and vice presidents are automatically audited by the IRS, which hasn’t stopped other chief executives from making them public.

This weekend, thousands of people marched in cities around the country to demand that Mr. Trump release his taxes. He dismissed them with a tweet: “Someone should look into who paid for the small organized rallies. The election is over.”

Mr. Trump is the first president in more than 40 years not to make his tax returns public. The president says only reporters care about the issue. But in a recent Bloomberg/Morning Consult poll, 53 percent of those surveyed said the president should release them.

Then there’s the question of who visits the White House, which Mr. Trump calls the people’s house. The administration says it’s ending the Obama policy of making visitor logs available, with exceptions for national security and privacy reasons.

Press Secretary Spicer:

SEAN SPICER: 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.

JOHN YANG: The administration is also under scrutiny for hiring former lobbyists to craft policies for the industries they came from. The New York Times and ProPublica found some had been given secret waivers exempting them from ethics rules.

Ethics questions also extend to first daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump and her business interests. The Associated Press reported that she received provisional Chinese approval for three trademarks on the day she dined with president Xi Jinping at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort.

Her fashion line, which is seeing record sales, is held in a family-run trust, and she has pledged to recuse herself from issues that present conflicts.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Yang.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on some of the questions all of this raises about government transparency and conflicts of interest, we are joined by Richard Painter. He’s a University of Minnesota law professor who served as President George W. Bush’s top ethics attorney. And Noah Bookbinder, he’s executive director of the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

We welcome both of you to the program.

NOAH BOOKBINDER, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

Noah Bookbinder, I’m going to start with you. There’s so much to cover here. Let’s just pick out a few of these questions.

Taxes. The White House continues to insist that President Trump’s taxes are being audited, and there’s just no way he can release them, he doesn’t have that ability to release them. What’s the answer?

NOAH BOOKBINDER: That’s just not correct.

As the report just indicated, every president’s taxes are routinely audited, and yet all of the previous presidents have seen fit to release their tax returns. Richard Nixon released his tax returns when he was under audit. And, surely, a level of transparency that was sufficient for Richard Nixon ought to work for this president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Richard Painter, why isn’t that a legitimate reason? In addition, the White House says the public doesn’t really care about President Trump’s taxes.

RICHARD PAINTER, University of Minnesota: Well, the public does care, and the fact that the tax returns are under audit is not an excuse for not releasing the tax returns.

And, furthermore, the president is going to propose tax reform legislation, which may very well just mean more handouts for the super rich, billionaire tax cuts. We ought to at least know what particular tax provisions are benefiting him financially, which loopholes he’s using, before he starts tinkering around with the tax code to create yet more.

So, this is going to be critically important that he release the tax returns, or we’re not going to have any tax reform legislation get through Congress. I can’t imagine that Congress would sign off on a bill proposed by the president if he’s not going to disclose how the bill is going to affect him financially. And the only way to do that is release those tax returns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly to Noah Bookbinder, this has been Donald Trump’s argument throughout the campaign from the very beginning, the first time anyone asked him about releasing his taxes. He said, it’s none of your business. It’s my private business. And, besides, they’re being audited.

Does he have a point that he is in a special place in this argument, unlike anyone else?

NOAH BOOKBINDER: He really doesn’t. It is — his taxes will reveal information that is going to tell us how he’s affected, as Richard said, by tax reform, but also by all kinds of other policy issues, from foreign policy — his tax returns will reveal his foreign interests — to regulatory policy.

And so it’s crucial for the American people to know what his interests are, to know what affects him and where conflicts might be. It’s even more true for him than for other presidents, because he maintains these vast business interests worldwide.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I want to turn both of you to another question that’s been in the news, and that is releasing, making public the list of people who visit the White House, the so-called visitor logs.

Richard Painter, this White House, they’re saying, we’re not going to do it, and, by history, by tradition, most presidents haven’t done it. Yes, President Obama did, but President Trump doesn’t feel compelled to do so.

What difference does it make?

RICHARD PAINTER: It makes a lot of difference.

The most ordinary Americans never have an opportunity to visit with anyone inside the White House. They can only look at the White House from outside the gate. Very few people get in there, lobbyists, billionaires, friends of the president, friends of his staff, politically connected people.

We have the right to know who those people are. They’re going in there. They’re lobbying the White House staff, trying to get legislation through, trying to get regulatory loopholes, tax loopholes and the rest of it. And the rest of us who don’t have any opportunity to go in the White House have the right to at least know who is going in and out of there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Noah Bookbinder, your organization actually sued the administration of George W. Bush to try to get them to release these visitor logs.

You weren’t successful with him, but then, again, as we mentioned, President Obama did release his. Where does that stand? Is this the kind of lawsuit that could apply again?

NOAH BOOKBINDER: Sure.

Well, our organization sued originally under George W. Bush. That lawsuit carried through into President Obama’s administration, and it was in discussions that came out of that lawsuit that led to the Obama administration’s policy of releasing the visitor logs.

They did it with exceptions for national security policy and for privacy, so there were no problems with doing so. Countless news stories came out of who was in there, who was getting access, who was influencing policy from the millions of names that were released.

We have filed a similar suit now with this administration, because they’re not following the example of the Obama administration and releasing those names.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so we will see how long that takes to work its way through.

I now want to turn both of you, though, to something else that has cropped up again today, and that is the family conflicts of interest. We know, Richard Painter, that both the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump, her husband, Jared Kushner, all have had very successful business interests.

They have separated themselves by a measure now that they’re working in the White House, but they have not completely separated themselves. How do you see the decision they have made to create trusts or other legal mechanisms without completely selling off and separating themselves from their business interests?

RICHARD PAINTER: Well, the trusts don’t do anything to change ownership of the businesses. They still have ownership of these businesses, which include clothing import businesses, bring in clothes from China, and, of course, Jared Kushner’s real estate businesses.

So what this means is both of them are going to have to recuse from trade negotiations with China that affect the clothing import business that Ivanka has, and both of them are going to have to recuse from tax reform measures, because there are lots of loopholes for the real estate business in any tax reform bill, certainly a lot of real estate-related issues on the table in tax reform, and, furthermore, banking reform.

They have got to stay out of that. That affects real estate. So, they have got to stay out of those things, and we will be OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I was in — Noah Bookbinder, I was in touch today with Ivanka Trump’s attorney, Jamie Gorelick, here in Washington, asked her about this story today about Ivanka Trump winning trademarks in China just on the same day that she was meeting with the Chinese — with her father, with the Chinese premier.

Jamie Gorelick wrote back and basically said that Ivanka Trump removed herself from her business before the start of her father’s administration. She said she has no role in deciding now what trademarks it seeks. She’s going to follow all applicable ethics rules.

Why isn’t that good enough?

NOAH BOOKBINDER: Well, the — she is still the owner of that business, and because she is the owner, she benefits from trademarks that are granted to the business.

And so, if they apply for trademarks, she sees that they get them. She knows the Chinese government is doing things that are beneficial to her, and that’s going to make her more disposed to policies that benefit China.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to have to leave it there, as we said, so many questions in this. And I know we’re going to be coming back to it.

Noah Bookbinder, Richard Painter, we thank you both.

NOAH BOOKBINDER: Thank you so much.

RICHARD PAINTER: Thank you, Judy.

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