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

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

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.

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.

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.

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Comments (14)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 02/17/2017 - 04:09 pm.

    Fundamental right to privacy….

    All that has to be done is to find a Lois learner type and have the tax returns leaked to the press. It seems there are many who are doing such things now and I have not heard one negative comment on such action by those who celebrate “privacy.”

    Whoever would do such a violation of personal privacy and break the law would be considered a hero by the left. That is as long as the one being exposed is a member of the GOP.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/18/2017 - 01:54 pm.

      Sauce For The Goose, Baby

      Yup, it’s true, we like leaks when they help our side. And deride them when they hurt our side.

      Not many people who had no problem with Wikileaks disgorging hacked Clinton emails would approve of leaking Trump’s taxes. And vice versa.

  2. Submitted by Joe Musich on 02/17/2017 - 08:37 pm.

    And yet I read ….

    in Friday’s Strib Paulson attempting to portray himself as the anti Trump with help of the Strib reporter’s lack of incisive questions. If he was so anti Trump his vote would have reflected a stance where his vote would have stood for Trump tax review. I thank you for your reporting in the light of the Strib appearing to give the issue a pass. Here is the link …..
    Some will come to realize that you will get what you vote for.

    • Submitted by C.S. Senne on 02/18/2017 - 11:06 am.

      “With or Without Him Townhall”

      Since Erik Paulsen refuses to meet with constituents, those constituents have arranged a “With of Without Him” townhall for Feb 23, 7:00 p.m., at Mt. Olivet Lutheran Church in Plymouth. There’ll be cupcakes, Cheetos, conversation, and TV cameras. The main question is Will Erik dare to show up? Or will he continue to dodge, weave, and run away from all questions vis a vis the “so-called” president.

  3. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 02/18/2017 - 10:20 am.

    Fraidy Cats

    The Republicans in congress are Fraidy Cats. Trump has them intimidated. They saw how Trump eviscerated 16 Republican opponents during the campaign and they don’t want any part of it. McConnell has figured out if he lays low and keeps his mouth shut Trump doesn’t bother him. Ryan is staying quiet too. He doesn’t want to mess up his 2020 presidential run chances. McCain and Graham seem to be the only ones not intimidated by Trump. The Republicans spent millions on their phony Bengazi witch hunt but won’t spend anything on a meaningful investigations of Trump, where a gold mine of bad news might be hiding. If the law is a politician can’t have any conflicts of interest then they have to prove it or the law is worthless and meaningless. The Republican politicians need to grow a backbone.

  4. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 02/18/2017 - 06:44 am.

    I question your lead

    The president may well be hiding something serious in his returns, but we can’t infer that from his choice to take a lot of grief over not releasing them. That actually makes a lot of sense to do regardless what’s in the return, because taking the grief could be precisely the point of it. He likes to be seen standing up strong — receiving grief but not caving in to it. An earlier leader who understood the power of name-as-brand chose to call himself the man of steel; this one has chosen to stay the card that always wins, but if he had to choose another brandname, man of steel might well be it. The tax return demands have handed him a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that strength. Even if by some miracle there were nothing damaging in the returns, it would still be in his interest to withhold them just to demonstrate his power.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/18/2017 - 11:31 am.

    I second Eric’s point: that Congress has the responsibility–and the legal authority and precedent–to request and study Trump’s tax returns for possible dangers to the country they reveal. Trump lies all the time, reflexively, so no one believes him when he says that he has no deals with Russia, owes no debt to Russia (how about “to Russians,” though? to those oligarchs out there with ties to the Russian mob?). Let’s see what his tax returns say.

    Our democracy depends on the various branches of the government doing their job: the Administration implementing the laws, Congress investigating and studying issues in and for the public and passing laws for the executive branch to administer, and the court system that keeps both other branches in line and behaving Constitutionally. This only protects us if everybody pitches in according to what the Constitution provides. Congress is letting us down by refusing to question anything that Trump does or says, or his minions do or say.

    Can you imagine the last month, if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama had been the President doing what Trump and his crew have done and said? Some GOP congressmen have actually said that they see no point to a Republican Congress investigating any Republican politician’s activities!

    With Congress having made a pact with the devil and sold its soul, the American public has only the Court System and the Press remaining to defend the nation and its citizens. If you’ve noticed, they’re doing their job, and it’s the courts and the press that Trump is making His Prime Enemies.

  6. Submitted by Claire Rupert on 02/18/2017 - 01:04 pm.

    We’ve all been conned

    Trump knew prior to joining the race that he would invoke his privilege as President not to release any personal financial documents. All he had to do was promise that at some point after the IRS completed his audit, he would release his returns. Once elected, he could (and did) decide against it, knowing his Republican Senate would rather not press the issue than to allow the left to further build a case against them by association.
    Unless there is a public outcry similar to the one launched against “Crooked Hillary” demanding Investigation of Trump’s business relations with hostile governments, the public will continue to pay for Trump security, Trump border walls, Trump family businesses leasing properties to our government and Trump vacation weekends in his various residences. We either need to swallow hard and admit our errors in judgment, or kiss our kids’ inheritances goodbye while Trump ensures the prosperity of billionaires like himself. Impeach him or pay for him, if you can afford him.

  7. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 02/18/2017 - 01:55 pm.


    If the Democrats should manage to flip control of Congress in the 2018 elections…

  8. Submitted by Helen Hunter on 02/18/2017 - 02:59 pm.

    “That actually makes a lot of sense”

    only if you accept trump’s stance that he is above law, custom, and the people’s demands (either the people directly or the people’s legislative or other representatives).
    Trump’s need to see himself as too smart and too powerful to bow to anyone else’s reasonable requests is a manifestation of his weakness and unfitness to rule, not any kind of legitimate strength.
    I use the word “rule” rather than “govern” on purpose. Trump, and whichever corporate czars are using him, are not interested in governing. Like Stalin whom you invoked, they want total power.

  9. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 02/18/2017 - 05:18 pm.

    A lot of people were conned by candidate Trump. but a large majority of American voters–all legitimate voters–were not conned by him at all. They voted for Clinton or another candidate.

    So “we” is an unfortunate and inaccurate pronoun to use when talking about atonement for a serious mistake in judgement that is now playing itself out on the national and international stage.

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 02/19/2017 - 09:35 am.

      I presume you’re replying to Ms Rupert’s comment above.

      And of course you’re correct – the majority weren’t conned by Trump. The other thing it’s critically important not to be conned by is the notion that Trump is some outlying figure of whom the Republicans, at the appropriate time, and with the connivance of the establishment media, can wash their hands, before continuing on with the same amoral tactics of power and propaganda that have resulted in the progressively authoritarian, progressively malignant administrations of Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Trump.

      Trump is the candidate whom the Republicans have spent the last four decades developing the ignorance, fear and authoritarian impulse of a sufficient minority of voters to elect. He is the distillation of four decades of Republican electoral strategy. More directly to the implicit point of the article, without the willingness of the majority caucuses in the U.S. House and Senate to use (or withhold) their confirmation, legislative and investigative powers in concord with Trump’s aims, Trump could accomplish almost nothing. Every time a Democratic leader, a media scribe or a commenter on MinnPost criticizes Trump alone, the Republican party strategy is advanced and, even if the nation and world unexpectedly should survive Trump, he will quickly recede as the next, even worse authoritarian takes the stage.

  10. Submitted by Ray J Wallin on 02/20/2017 - 12:20 pm.

    Wait, there’s more!

    As seen on TV… The ‘New and Improved’ Birther Movement. We call it ‘Trump’s Taxes.’

    Just like the Birther Movement, it means nothing. It holds nothing. But we pretend that once discovered, it will shed the light we need onto some ongoing argument we’ve been having all along.

    Stay Tuned!

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/24/2017 - 03:40 pm.

      No big deal?

      Well, if it’s such a “no big deal”, then why doesn’t he just release them and prove the point?

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