Photo: Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images
This week, the House Ways and Means Committee formally requested to receive the federal tax forms from President Trump. This step, which should only be a formality, immediately ran into a political and legal conflict. What is so striking about the episode is how little outcry Trump’s open disregard for the law has generated. It is now taken for granted that this president should place himself above legal responsibility and that his party should support him to the utmost.
The law on this is unusually clear. The Internal Revenue Code states: “Upon a written request from the Chair of the Means and Ways Committee of the House of Representatives, the Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, or the Chair of the Joint Tax Committee, the secretary shall provide any return information or return information to such committee Provide. ”This law was used to audit tax returns from senior political officials. It was issued to allow Congress to review government financial conflicts of interest and required disclosure of a President’s (Richard Nixon) tax returns.
News reports describe this law as “obscure” or “poorly applied” which it is – but only because presidential candidates who receive a large party nomination have habitually published their tax returns. It’s a very strong norm that the law made obsolete. But the fact that the norm is being held up by law strengthens the case for its enforcement rather than weakening it.
Trump recently told reporters, “As I understand it, the law is 100 percent on my side.” The president declined to support this shrill interpretation with references to legal texts or other precedents, which is hardly surprising. His followers have also not explained in a more unusual way why the plain text of the law actually does not apply.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders stated simply, “While his taxes are still being audited, he does not expect this to change anytime soon and has no intention of releasing these tax returns.” Trump’s tax returns can be examined or not, but in any case it does not affect any law that allows Congress to examine them.
Senator Charles Grassley, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, defended Trump’s disregard for the law in terms that made up for in emotional intensity what they lacked in any legal basis. “[Democrats] don’t like him with passion and they want his tax returns to destroy him, ”said Grassley. “That’s all this whole process is about, and it’s Nixonian at its core.”
These are not good reasons, but they are reasons, and their importance is well worth considering. It’s certainly true that the Democrats in Congress don’t like Trump. However, this does not affect their power to exercise a right that the law clearly assigns them.
Interestingly, Grassley claims that receiving Trump’s tax returns would “destroy him”. It is frightening that Grassley not only believes that the information in Trump’s tax returns is so devastating that it would destroy him, but that the right response is to prevent this ruinous information from being made available to Congress or the public.
The National Review’s David French admits that Congress has a legal title to the tax returns, while devoting almost all of his reasoning to claiming that the law is terrible and Trump is right to refute it. His avowed concern is not Trump, but the poor average taxpayer who might be targeted in Congress: “You can have your return, my return, or the return of any political enemy.”
That theory fails to explain why, when the law is so ripe and tempting to abuse, none of the people who ran Congress for the past 95 years – many of them quite ruthlessly – have actually used it to attack individuals. In any case, even if you fear the law is ripe for abuse, leaving it on the books and not using it to force the president to do what all modern presidents have done is hardly a solution to have. It could also be used in the future to address private individuals.
If this scenario, which hasn’t existed in 95 years, is really that scary, Congress could amend the law to only apply to the president, or maybe also to members of the cabinet, addressing privacy concerns. But actually nobody really believes that Trump would support such a reform, because he obviously doesn’t care at all about privacy in the abstract. Both in its motive and in its application, Trump’s position has nothing to do with protecting the average person, but everything to do with protecting Trump.
Mere public disclosure is pretty much the bare minimum possible to contain Trump’s massive financial conflicts of interest. It is certainly much milder than forcing him to put his fortune in blind trust, as all presidents have been happy to do for decades. But even this modest step goes too far for any Republican. This fanatical opposition only makes the forbidden all the more tempting.
Last year the New York Times examined government records and found, alongside the devastating revelation that Trump inherited at least $ 400 million, a decade-long pattern of massive tax fraud by Trump and his father. Other reporters have found extensive evidence that Trump’s income comes from aiding in money laundering or dealing with criminals and dictators.
This would help explain the unusual care with which the President is handling this problem. The Times recently reported that Trump had urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to quickly endorse his hand-picked IRS chief adviser Michael J. Desmond and even prioritize his endorsement over Attorney General William Barr. Trump generally has little interest in how the administration works internally – his Secretary of Defense resigned three and a half months ago, and Trump has taken no obvious steps to find a replacement. Obviously, it is very important to him that loyalists occupy the IRS.
Republicans pretend that the president’s tax returns are traditionally kept private, and it is the Democrats who want to violate this sacred custom of secrecy. Receiving Trump’s tax returns “sets a dangerous standard for the use of the federal government as a political weapon” and is also a “waste of time,” claims Kevin McCarthy, the minority leader in the House of Representatives. (The actual standard it would “set” would be for presidents to disclose their tax information, which was the standard before Trump showed up.)
“Democrats say they are interested in all presidents’ tax returns when they are really only interested in one thing: President Trump,” argues Grassley. (Of course, the Democrats are only interested in receiving this president’s taxes – he’s the only one who refused to disclose them!) Grassley adds, “It’s motivated by the Democrats’ strong dislike of this president. It is motivated by their frustration at losing an election they thought they would easily win. It is motivated by their desire to use whatever resources they have at their disposal to find something – anything – to bring this president down. “
Grassley focuses on motivating Congress to receive Trump’s taxes while ignoring Trump’s own motivations to hide them so he can divert the conversation from the obvious solution – both from the public good standpoint and from the letter of the law. This is the method Republicans use to justify any degradation of norms and laws that Trump has made: drop the question of a neutral principle and reduce it to a simple fight by us against it. And the rougher and more unjustified Trump’s behavior, the more angry the Democrats are with him, which gives the Republicans all the more reason to defend him.
The secrecy of Trump’s tax returns “is a hill and people would be willing to die on it … see you in court,” boasted one administration official. Legally, they don’t have a leg to stand on. It is telling that no one in the administration or the Republican Party seems to care.
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Analysis and commentary on the latest political news from New York columnist Jonathan Chait.