President Donald Trump has promised to release his tax returns. Democrats have promised to release Donald Trump’s tax returns.
So why is it the beginning of April 2019 and we still haven’t seen his damn tax returns?
There seems to be no good reason for this concealment. Trump and his defenders have repeatedly claimed that he is waiting for an audit to be completed before he releases the returns — though this is transparently a lie, and occasionally his people have admitted as much. Even since being elected president, he has filed his taxes for the years 2016, 2017, and will soon file for 2018 if he hasn’t already — any of these returns could have been released as soon as they were finished.
Trump seems to have something to hide, to be sure. But why are Democrats in Congress dawdling in obtaining his tax returns? They ran in 2018 in part of the promise to release his returns, and as former federal prosecutor Harry Litman has argued, they have a firm legal basis for the demand:
The law that permits [Rep. Richard Neal, D-MA.], as head of Ways and Means, to receive Trump’s returns is simple and clear: 26 U.S.C. §6103(f) specifies that “upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives … the Secretary [of the Treasury] shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request.” The return is furnished in closed executive session.
“Shall” means, well, shall. The language is the well-established norm, across a range of legal settings, used to denote an absence of discretion on an official’s part. It leaves no room for quibbles by the secretary.
Ryan Cooper, writing for The Week, argued that not only does Congress have the legal right to request the returns, but that the mechanism for obtaining them is designed precisely for the situation we find ourselves in:
Moreover, oversight of conflicts of interest is literally the entire reason this law came about in the first place. It was passed in 1924, in response to the Teapot Dome scandal and then-Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon’s refusal to reveal his possible conflicts of interest.
That sort of thing is exactly why the American people deserve to see Trump’s tax returns. No president has ever continued to operate a vast business empire while in office. The conflicts of interests — plus instances of blatantly abusing his power to enrich himself — probably number in the hundreds. The man is plainly a crook.
Yet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi appears to agree with Neal’s slow-and-steady approach.
“We have to be very, very careful as we go forward. It’s not an issue of just sending a letter,” she said. “You have to do it in a very careful way.”
But it’s not clear why Democrats should be “careful” about it. Republicans and the president will obviously put up a fight, but they have no legal grounds for doing so, and no moral or political grounds either. Trump promised to release his taxes, and yet he broke that promise. Democrats can even say that they’re helping Trump fulfill his own promise — in addition to living up to their constitutional oversight responsibilities.
And for what it’s worth, public opinion is strongly behind Democrats’ obtaining and releasing the president’s returns.
“Trump paying taxes isn’t the most precious issue we face, but it’s symptomatic of the central endemic problem of the Democratic Party: the fear of using power that it actually has, that it’s been given by voters, to do good things,” said Paul Blest of Splinter. “They are allergic to power. And if the Democrats can’t even use this power to do something as minor as make the tax returns of the literal president of the country public, what good can they actually be counted on to do?”
Catherine Rampell, writing for the Washington Post, noted that the tax returns could help answer important questions about the president: “From whom has Trump been getting money? To whom does Trump still owe funds, and under what circumstances might they be able to demand immediate repayment? And how much has his income gone up since he became president?”
She noted that they won’t give us all the answers we’re looking for, but the tax returns would be a start. And that’s all the more reason that we should get them as soon as possible.