I read this quote in a Guardian article a while back and have been questions the legality ever since.

You can look at Nixon’s returns at the Presidential Tax History Project. You can look at Trump’s 1995 returns at the New York Times. If you can somehow see Trump’s later returns, feel free to send copies along to our offices at 222 Broadway, New York.

It is the last part of this that is of interest

If you can somehow see Trump’s later returns, feel free to send copies along to our offices

According to law.cornell.edu

(c) Disclosure of returns and return information to designee of taxpayer ---------------------------- The Secretary may, subject to such requirements and conditions as he may prescribe by regulations, disclose the return of any taxpayer, or return information with respect to such taxpayer, to such person or persons as the taxpayer may designate in a request for or consent to such disclosure, or to any other person at the taxpayer’s request to the extent necessary to comply with a request for information or assistance made by the taxpayer to such other person. However, return information shall not be disclosed to such person or persons if the Secretary determines that such disclosure would seriously impair Federal tax administration.

Now, according to California Law, actively encouraging/calling for the committing of a crime can be considered a crime itself. To me, asking someone to divulge confidential information is calling for the committal of a crime.

Issue of my post: I only know the California Law because that's what google gave me first.

  • 1
    That quoted section of law says absolutely nothing about what anybody else can or cannot do with a person's tax returns. It's only bout what the Secretary (or their appointed representative) may do with the information, and the bounds they are permitted to do it within.
    – user4657
    Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 20:49
  • 1
    The only colorable criminal offense might be conspiracy to steal a trade secret (to the extent that business information in a tax return is a trade secret; a close call to which the answer is probably no), if the newspaper's involvement is sufficient to constitute a conspiracy (another close call; probably not due to free speech considerations). In the U.S., people who leak secrets often go to jail and people who receive leaks don't. Tax law doesn't cover a secondary disclosures of a return once it's left the IRS. Also, the SOL on the original theft may have already run.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 6:20
  • @Nij, you are right, it doesn't. My line of reasoning was that if this is the case and tax returns are generally confidential, it would be illegal for someone to show others the return without the willing consent of the returnee. Just the same way that I would think stealing/obtaining without consent of someone's SSN card would be illegal (barring cases like "found it on the ground"). I extended the language and intent of this law to cover a more general version of protection, because I could not find any specific law.
    – RM3
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 15:09
  • @ohwilleke, that severely weakens any claim that the quote would be criminal. Thank you for that response. Unfortunate that the leakers go to jail and not the callers. So there is no law at all protecting tax returns after they leave the Secretary's hands? So if I were a business owner and had my secretary disclosed them to another business I plan on dealing with, that other business could take them to the press (for example)?
    – RM3
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 15:13
  • @RM3 You could sue your secretary for breach of obligations owed to you in an employment relationship if you could show damages. But, unless the other business owner had bribed or blackmailed the secretary to do it, pretty much you couldn't sue the other business that to it to the press or the press.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 19:42

2 Answers 2


In the US there is a crime of "aiding and abetting" a crime, and the DOJ provides an overview of the elements here. One of the requirements for conviction is that the accused know of the (intended) crime. Even an overt exhortation "You should go commit that crime" would not constitute aiding and abetting, since you do not know that a person is likely to thereby commit the crime; nor do you facilitate the crime. "Aiding and abetting" law is kind of murky, but the text you cite does not adcocate breaking the law. A contrary consideration is the First Amendment, which allows a newspaper to make a political statement that some might interpret as advocating commission of a crime. The Guardian might, however, run afoul of the Serious Crime Act 2007 section 46, and there isn't a First Amendment defense. In the case of the particular quote, it is not a crime to publish a person's tax return, even without their consent (the restrictions are on the government releasing tax returns); so they wouldn't have aided and abetted a crime.

  • Well stated, @user. Upvote from me for it! Commented Nov 2, 2016 at 22:21
  • Yea, you're right. The commenter on the post itself corroborate that there is no law protecting the publishing of tax returns. They could be asking for someone who, to them, had the returns disclosed to come forward, which would be legal.
    – RM3
    Commented Nov 3, 2016 at 15:16
  • @user6726 You jump from US to UK law in that paragraph, without really saying when you make the jump.
    – D M
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 4:42

There are several issues here:

  1. The law you quote tells you when it is allowed for the IRS to disclose this information. Of itself, it doesn't prohibit disclosure except by implication.
  2. It certainly doesn't, on the face of it, make disclosure a criminal matter. That is, if my return were disclosed I could sue for damages but it is not clear if the state could prosecute a crime.
  3. It only applies to the IRS. A person who is not an employee or agent of the IRS is not so restricted.
  4. Someone who is in possession of the return may or may not have received the documents in a confidential situation. If they have and they pass them to the newspaper then Mr Trump could sue that person: the paper, however, is not bound by such confidence. If they have the documents outside a situation of confidence (e.g., they found them in Mr Trump's trash) then there are no holds barred.

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