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Congress has the legal power to get Trump’s tax returns — it just won’t

The American people need to be assured that Trump’s returns don’t divulge some kind of disqualifying information about what he has been up to in his business dealings.

An activist holding a sign asking Trump to release his tax forms, outside of Trump Tower last September.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

President Trump is almost certainly hiding something very serious in his tax returns. Otherwise, it makes absolutely no sense to take all the grief he has taken rather than release them as all presidential nominees have done over recent decades.

His excuse, that he can’t release them because they are under audit, never made any sense at all. The fact that they are under audit makes it all the more important that Trump’s bosses — the American people — get a look at what kind of funny business he is trying to pull that gets him endlessly audited every year. The IRS has repeatedly said that the fact of an audit doesn’t block any citizen from releasing their tax returns.

But leave that aside. The real reason we need to see them, and should have seen them before Election Day, is to make sure they don’t divulge some kind of disqualifying information about what he has been up to in his business dealings. One’s mind immediately goes to the question of his possible Russian connections, but his tax returns would shed important light on his dealings overall.

A private citizen is entitled to privacy in such matters. That is outweighed by the need for all the other citizens to understand the fitness of a presidential candidate to hold the public trust. For a presidential candidate like Trump, whose entire adult life experience and claim to qualifications to be president revolves around his business practices, the public especially needed to see what Trump has been hiding.

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It’s true, there is no law requiring candidates to make their tax returns public. Personally, I’d be ready to support such a law, for future cases. If someone has that many bodies buried in their tax returns, they should know that before they run for president and either clear up the corpses or not run for president.

But, if Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic magazine knows what he’s talking about, it turns out there is a law that enables Congressional committees that deal with tax matters to see the tax returns of individuals. It’s been on the books since 1924. It was used in 1974 to get President Nixon to turn over his returns when he was under Watergate investigation, and it was used again in 2014 in connection with a Ways and Means Committee investigation. You can make technical arguments, if you are so inclined, as to why those precedents don’t apply, but they will look like excuses.

All we need to find out what Trump has been hiding is for one of the three tax-related committees specified in the federal law to invoke this power, without necessarily even promising to make the results public — unless they find something that needs to be made public, in which case, hell yes, make it public.

Wrote Friedersdorf:

This prompted Democrats on the [House Ways and Means] Committee to introduce an amendment Tuesday that would’ve triggered a request for the tax returns to the Treasury Department. “Unless this amendment is adopted, we will never see the president’s tax returns while he’s in office,” Representative Sander Levin told his Republican colleagues. “Before you stonewall this, I urge you to think twice. You’ll only keep the issue alive.”

The amendment was rejected on a straight party-line vote. Maybe you can guess which party voted which way.

Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, Republican of Texas, replied that:

If Congress begins to use its powers to rummage around in the tax returns of the president, what prevents Congress from doing the same to average Americans?

That strikes me as pretty close to the definition of reductio ad absurdum.

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Minnesotan Republican Erik Paulsen is on the committee and voted with the rest of the Republicans to defeat the amendment. I haven’t been able to arrange for a statement from him in time for this post, but if he wants to explain his reasoning, I will gladly do a follow-up post.