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Trump’s tax returns show he was a bigger risk than we realized

If Congress had known about Trump's foreign bank accounts earlier, they could very well have looked into them.

Last month the House Ways and Means Committee published six years of former President Trump’s tax returns — documents that should have been released years earlier, whether by Trump voluntarily, or by congressional subpoena. As Norman Eisen, Danya Perry and I have explained, we learned a lot from Trump’s tax returns. Among the pages and pages of revelations, it is the new details about his foreign entanglements that are most frightening from the vantage point of our national security.

The tax returns reveal that Trump had foreign bank accounts from 2015 to 2020. These include a bank account in China from 2015 to 2017, which reportedly is connected to Trump International Hotels Management business in China. The tax returns also showed that Trump had business dealings in Azerbaijan, Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Georgia, Grenada, India, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, Panama, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Qatar, South Korea, St. Maarten, St. Vincent, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom. 

Trump’s tax returns would have given us a lot more information than we had at the time about his business dealings with foreign nations, including foreign governments.

The drafters of our Constitution were well aware of the threat of foreign influence over U.S. office holders when they wrote the Emoluments Clause, which prohibits anyone holding a position of trust with the United States government from receiving any emoluments — i.e. profits and benefits — from any foreign state. As Eisen, Laurence Tribe and I explained before the beginning of the Trump presidency, he was likely in violation of the Emoluments Clause on the day he took office.

Soon after, the three of us were representing plaintiffs in one of several lawsuits against Trump alleging breaches of the emoluments clause. The cases were tied up in the federal courts for almost three years over questions of standing — the right to sue. The protracted battles delayed discovery in these cases, meaning nobody was able to find out where Trump and his companies were getting their money from. Even after the courts allowed some of the lawsuits to go forward, by the time discovery began Trump was leaving office. The Supreme Court in 2021 dismissed the cases as moot because Trump had left office. We never did find out which foreign governments were paying Trump while he was in office and how much. The former president, of course, denied all charges of improper conduct.

Trump’s tax returns would have given us a lot more information than we had at the time about his business dealings with foreign nations, including foreign governments. These returns, and other financial information about the Trump Organizations’ foreign business dealings, and his foreign bank accounts, should have been available to Congress at the beginning of 2017, not gradually leaked out over the course of the Trump administration, with these latest tax returns only being released in late 2022. Had they been available years earlier, Congress could have begun investigating these accounts.

Looking at the list of Trump’s tax returns, the bank account in China immediately jumps out. The existence of the account had been previously revealed by The New York Times — but only in 2020, years after it would have become public had Trump released his returns. Given Trump’s many business connections to China, and allegations that Trump asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to help him win re-election, it would be perfectly reasonable for Congress to want to look into this account.

All of this shows that our country took an enormous national security risk not seeing Trump’s tax returns from the beginning of his presidency.

The far-flung nature of Trump’s many accounts also begs the question of what countries the transactions were coming from. The Russian government’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is well established. We also remember that Trump’s own lawyer Michael Cohen detailed how Trump lied about his business dealings in Russia, including a planned Trump Tower in Moscow. And there is extensive documentation of Trump and his company partnering with Russian oligarchs — a status few reach without the support of Vladimir Putin's government.

What this meant for U.S. foreign policy is not clear. Putin did not test his business and personal relationship with Trump by invading Ukraine while Trump was president, while the Trump administration’s policies often diverged from the American president’s praise for his Russian counterpart.

Nonetheless, it is frightening to think of a president of the United States being so deeply involved financially with a nuclear armed country under an authoritarian ruler with a long history of threatening and invading its neighbors. If there was any type of foreign financial entanglement that comes closest to what the Founders feared most when drafting the emoluments clause, it is this.

Did any of Trump’s foreign bank accounts receive money from Russia? What about other countries that spent large sums of money at his hotels and played influential roles in his foreign policy, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey? The tax returns don’t answer these questions, but if Congress had known about the foreign bank accounts during Trump’s presidency, they could very well have looked into them.

All of this shows that our country took an enormous national security risk not seeing Trump’s tax returns from the beginning of his presidency. It was then that Congress should have asked and Trump answered relevant questions about his business dealings in foreign countries that could violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, endanger U.S. national security or both.

For years, Trump fanned the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama had violated the Constitution’s requirement that the president be a natural born citizen. It is oddly appropriate then, that he openly flaunted the emoluments clause. Both clauses were written to avoid one of the Founders’ deepest fears: a president so deeply embedded with foreign nations that his loyalty to the U.S. could be at risk. But while Obama’s citizenship is an open-and-shut case, thanks to Trump’s own obstruction, his own adherence to the Constitution remains very much an open question.