A basic rule of politics is that when you have a problem, get it all out and put it behind you. The worst response is to dither and then shoot yourself in the foot.
With the Bernie Sanders campaign, we are seeing the candidate repeatedly shoot himself in the foot over what would be a non-issue, if only he had forthrightly answered a question that has dogged him since last summer.
Where are your tax returns?
It’s a question that goes not just to Sanders but also to all the other politicians who want us to trust them in the most powerful office in the world but want to hide their finances and tax strategies. That includes Donald Trump, whose tax returns I will be shocked if we ever see; and Republicans Ted Cruz and John Kasich, who like Sanders have only released the summary form 1040 and not their complete returns, as I recently noted here.
Last summer, NPR and the Washington Post asked Sanders for his tax returns, a question the senator had to know would be raised because releasing them has been standard practice for presidential aspirants since Watergate, when America had an unindicted tax criminal in the Oval Office and a confessed tax felon a heartbeat from the presidency.
Sanders had made available only his and wife Jane’s 2014 Form 1040, a summary lacking crucial details about their sources of income, deductions, and tax strategy.
In late March I asked for Sanders’ complete tax returns back to 2007, when he became senator. What I got back was a dissembling statement from his campaign spokesman, followed by silence when I sent follow-up questions via email.
Now this story has taken a very troubling turn, one that raises serious questions about the Senator’s judgment and his wife’s veracity.
On Bloomberg TV’s With All Due Respect last Monday, host Mark Halperin asked Jane Sanders when she would disclose the couple’s tax returns. In her reply, she claimed “every election we released them.”
My diligent reporting has failed to turn up any indication that her statement is true.
I made extensive telephone calls, interviewed a former Sanders election opponent, thoroughly searched Google, the Internet archive known as the “Wayback Machine,” the Nexis database, Newspapers.com, and files of Vermont’s largest newspaper, the Burlington Free Press. I called veteran Vermont political reporters and operatives.
Except for one reporter who said he had a vague recollection that perhaps, some years ago, he may have seen a partial Sanders tax return, nothing I learned lends any credence to what Jane Sanders claimed.
Halperin asked a series of questions trying to pin down Ms. Sanders, who said she prepares the couple’s tax returns using the TurboTax computer program. She indicated a vague awareness that their taxes had been sought during the prior two weeks by, she suggested, the Hillary Clinton campaign.
But I was the one doing the requesting. I clearly identified myself as a journalist. I have no connection to the Clinton campaign and, for the record, am registered to vote in Republican primaries. (I have also written favorably about Sanders’ economic proposals and appeared as a guest on his radio show.)
While Halperin pressed Ms. Sanders repeatedly, she pleaded for time to find and release their pre-2014 tax returns. She promised without reservation that the returns would be released, adding, “Well, sure, I will have to go back and find them — we haven’t been home for a month.”
Halperin asked if she would release full returns, not just Form 1040.
“Sure, no problem,” she replied.
“I would say well, when they are due I would expect them to come out,” she said.
Halperin asked how many years of returns would be released, noting Hillary Clinton has released eight years. (Actually all of the returns filed by her and her husband dating back to 1992 are available at taxhistory.org).
That was when Jane Sanders said: “Every election we have released them…we did when he ran for election, yeah. I’ll release this year’s as soon as they’re due… and can I have time to go home to retrieve the older ones?
Just how Mrs. Sanders would prepare the 2015 tax return by the April 18 deadline, but not have access to a prior year return, is an interesting question that Halperin did not ask.
Had those returns been released in 2012, 2006, and in Sanders’ earlier races, it would be reasonable to expect that there would be at least passing mention of them in Vermont news reports.
Furthermore, the candidate would be able to point me or anyone else inquiring to a staffer, a political operative, a friend, or someone who had kept a copy of his returns or even just remembers seeing a copy.
Richard Tarrant, a successful medical software entrepreneur who ran against Sanders in 2006, told me that had he ever seen either the form 1040 or the complete tax return of Bernie and Jane Sanders, he would have reviewed the document carefully to learn all he could about their finances — and whether the tax return showed any political vulnerabilities in that race. Tarrant, who had a big interest in seeking the Sanders’ returns, said he never saw one.
Michael Briggs, chief press spokesperson for the Sanders campaign, did not respond to questions I submitted in writing.
The silence from Briggs is itself troubling, since his employer is campaigning as Mr. Transparency.
Now there may well be nothing of consequence in the Sanders tax returns. But that is not the issue. Sanders is giving aid to those politicians who want to end the practice of disclosing tax returns, while marketing himself as a politician untainted by big donations and lobbyists.
He needs to walk his talk.
And meanwhile if anyone out there has an old Sanders tax return, please send it to me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo: Flickr user Timothy Krause.