The New York Times has released Donald Trump’s 1995 tax returns and some people are pointing to this Washington Post piece as proof that the Times broke the law.
But a careful reading of the law shows that the Times did not break the law.
The relevant section, cited by the Washington Post, is 26 USC § 7213(a)(3), which reads:
It shall be unlawful for any person to whom any return or return information (as defined in section 6103(b)) is disclosed in a manner unauthorized by this title thereafter willfully to print or publish in any manner not provided by law any such return or return information. Any violation of this paragraph shall be a felony punishable by a fine in any amount not exceeding $5,000, or imprisonment of not more than 5 years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution.
Let’s break this down.
It shall be unlawful for any person to whom any return or return information is disclosed to print or publish the information.
But the “to whom any return or return information is disclosed” language is defined by 26 USC §6103(b).
Let’s look there.
26 USC §6103(b)(1) defines a return as
any tax or information return, declaration of estimated tax, or claim for refund required by, or provided for or permitted under, the provisions of this title which is filed with the Secretary
26 USC §6103(b)(2) defines “return information” as
a taxpayer’s identity, the nature, source, or amount of his income, payments, receipts, deductions, exemptions, credits, assets, liabilities, net worth, tax liability, tax withheld, deficiencies, overassessments, or tax payments, whether the taxpayer’s return was, is being, or will be examined or subject to other investigation or processing, or any other data, received by, recorded by, prepared by, furnished to, or collected by the Secretary
Got that? The key passage of both is “filed with” or “collected by the Secretary.”
The Secretary is the Secretary of the Department of Treasury of the United States of America. The law only applies to federal tax returns filed with the Department of Treasury.
So now we have to see where the Times got its tax records. According to their report
The documents consisted of three pages from what appeared to be Mr. Trump’s 1995 tax returns. The pages were mailed last month to Susanne Craig, a reporter at The Times who has written about Mr. Trump’s finances. The documents were the first page of a New York State resident income tax return, the first page of a New Jersey nonresident tax return and the first page of a Connecticut nonresident tax return. Each page bore the names and Social Security numbers of Mr. Trump and Marla Maples, his wife at the time. Only the New Jersey form had what appeared to be their signatures.
The three documents arrived by mail at The Times with a postmark indicating they had been sent from New York City. The return address claimed the envelope had been sent from Trump Tower.
The Times did not get the returns from the Internal Revenue Service. In fact, a review of the documents themselves show the returns are state tax returns that reveal federal tax information, which is not the same as a federal filing.
Because these are state returns, not federal returns, and the returns were not obtained from the government, but from other sources, the Times itself is not in legal jeopardy. That said, we know Donald Trump has a history of suing others even when they have done nothing wrong.