Politics & Policy

If Trump Won’t Release Tax Returns, His Delegates Should Abstain on First Ballot

(Mark Wallheiser/Getty)

Ronald Reagan famously said that “trust, but verify” was the proper way to deal with someone who has a record of credibility problems. Republicans need to adopt Reagan’s approach as Donald Trump moves closer to the Republican nomination.

A political party that didn’t demand the public release of Donald Trump’s tax returns could be committing electoral suicide. In his 40-year business career, he has assembled an empire of great complexity along with a serial record of credibility problems. In other words, he often “makes stuff up.” This is a man who said, under oath, in a 2008 libel suit he later lost: “My net worth fluctuates, and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings.”

The federal candidate financial-disclosure forms Trump points reporters to are not audited for accuracy or completeness.

Republican voters, GOP officials, and all Americans should demand that Donald Trump release his tax returns, something he refuses to do with the flimsiest of excuses. If he doesn’t release them, no one should be surprised if a leak of the juiciest details comes from the Obama administration before the November election. And the odds that anyone in the government would pay a penalty for that? Ask Lois Lerner, the comfortably retired former IRS official at the heart of the scandal involving discrimination against conservative non-profit groups. 

All Americans should demand that Donald Trump release his tax returns, something he refuses to do.

“Most returns of his are probably offers rather than final positions,” David Herzog, a tax-law professor at Valparaiso University, told the Wall Street Journal. “I would guess that Trump did not start cleaning up how he reported his income [before deciding to run]. His past returns are probably a treasure trove.” That means a trove for Democrats in the fall. In 2012, Mitt Romney’s tax returns were relatively straightforward for someone who was rich, but he was nonetheless savaged over them both before and after he belatedly released them six weeks before the election. 

“A candidate has a moral obligation to his supporters and staff not to have them blindsided by negative information,” says Morton Blackwell, a Republican national committeeman who has trained tens of thousands of staffers for campaigns. Donald Trump’s response is that his tax returns are “very beautiful,” but not so much so that he can release even those that predate any current audit.

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If Donald Trump won’t release his tax returns prior to the GOP convention, the delegates pledged to him on the first ballot should abstain from giving him their votes. Other than their vote not counting, there are no realistic consequences for any delegate doing so on the first ballot. A few states make breaking the first-ballot pledge rule a misdemeanor, but no one is ever prosecuted. In theory, state leaders could exact political retribution but such discipline is rarely exercised.

In a large number of states, between 30 and 60 percent of Trump delegates won’t be personal supporters of the Manhattan mogul (ditto with the alternates elected to accompany the delegates and vote for them if they can’t).

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Delegates will have been selected at county confabs and state conventions or by party insiders, in a ritual that for decades has rewarded faithful party servants and elected officeholders. Delegates pledged to any candidate on the first ballot are not bound to follow that candidate on votes on changing rules, honoring delegate credentials, or even the vice-presidential balloting. As Benjamin Ginsberg, an election lawyer who’s been involved in GOP presidential politics for seven straight elections, says: “This situation can unsettle any convention and would require whip operations like no candidate has had for generations.”

#share#Here’s how one Republican strategist explained the situation in his state: Donald Trump won the February 20 South Carolina primary with 32 percent of the vote but because he carried every congressional district, he won all 50 delegates. But as in almost all states, no actual people have been chosen to fill those slots yet. “There are mostly phantom delegates,” argues Elaine Kamarck, a Brookings Institution scholar and author of The Primary Games. “Understanding this is critical to understanding why this wild election year may get wilder still.” She writes that it is unclear what “would actually happen on the floor of the convention if some Trump delegates decided to vote for someone else.” But the Republican convention experts I talked to largely argued that if a delegate and his or her alternate chose not to vote, Trump would receive one fewer vote.

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In South Carolina, the actual delegates will be selected at a state-party convention in April. The delegates eligible to vote were selected last year at district meetings. No one else is eligible. “I can guarantee you that Governor Nikki Haley and Senator Tim Scott will have more say on who gets elected a delegate than Donald Trump will at that convention,” the strategist told me. He predicted that only 15 to 20 of the 50 actual delegates will be dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporters. The same ratio would probably apply to the alternates elected at the convention. “That means they will be open to persuasion if it looks like Trump is a sure loser in the fall or if he commits even more horrendous gaffes in the next four and a half months.”

Henry Olsen, a scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of The Four Faces of the Republican Party, told me he expects that, in some states, actual Trump supporters will be even less of a presence. 

“Look at places like Colorado and North Dakota, where in 2012 Santorum won the caucuses but got cleaned out of the delegates,” he says. “I think the party elites will be even more thorough in their delegate vetting this time around than in 2012, where Mitt was pretty much assured of the nomination when the delegates were chosen.”

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In some states, the Trump people will have a chance to get voters to attend county, district, and state meetings that help elect delegates. But they might be at a disadvantage. Political consultant Shari Williams told me that, in this week’s Colorado caucuses, she “had the distinct impression the Trump people weren’t up to speed in organizing.” Indeed, a survey of many states by Politico found that “Trump’s campaign remains the ramshackle, build-as-you-go organization that it has been from the beginning.” That might be fine for the “shock and awe” stage of the primaries, but it might not serve well in the detail-oriented work of selecting actual delegates.

In many states, Trump isn’t retaining the staffers who built his vote totals. His top Iowa leaders are no longer under contract and Trump state directors in Georgia and Texas, the two biggest delegate prizes on Super Tuesday, have left the campaign.

RELATED: Donald Trump: How to Fight Him

I spoke with several Donald Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., this week who were attending the Conservative Political Action Conference. They uniformly were outraged at any suggestion that Trump would be denied delegate votes though abstentions or failures to vote. But many agreed that his failure to release his tax returns was troubling, and it would be exploited by Democrats in the fall. 

Many political experts don’t think Donald Trump will arrive at the Cleveland convention with the 1,237 delegates he needs to be nominated. To win that majority, Trump needs to win over 40 percent of the popular vote in the primaries and caucuses — a level of support he has achieved so far only in Alabama and Massachusetts. He can always then try to cut deals with other candidates for more support. But if he starts losing votes because some of his delegates are abstaining, such deals might become more difficult to consummate. Even if he secures a narrow majority before Cleveland, pressure in the form of abstaining delegates should be put on him to secure complete release of his tax returns.

#related#Scenarios such as this might appear unlikely, but, as Mitt Romney pointed out in a speech on Thursday, “the rules of political history have pretty much all been shredded during this campaign.” The political rules at a convention should respect the voice of the people. But they should not become a straitjacket that endangers a political party’s chances of winning. Bob Beauprez, a former congressman and 2014 GOP candidate for governor of Colorado, told me: “We need answers and accountability. I think the idea of abstaining till we get them is a very good one.”

Delegates withholding their support from Donald Trump until he delivered on his year-old promise to release his tax returns would be safeguarding the party’s interests and applying pressure to clear up a potentially explosive issue in the fall campaign. 

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