The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee used a pretty transparent pretext for demanding to see six years’ worth of tax returns filed by Donald J. Trump and selected Trump businesses. So it’s only fitting that Trump would use a transparent pretext to deny the request.
When asked Wednesday about his tax forms, the president told reporters this: “I would love to give them, but I’m not going to do it while I’m under audit. It’s very simple. Remember — I got elected last time, the same exact issue, with the same intensity, which wasn’t very much because frankly the people don’t care.”
Some people do not care. Some people — basically, anyone who does not trust the president — do care, and they wonder what he’s hiding.
Every other president and presidential candidate in the last several decades has released his or her tax returns. And given that the IRS audits sitting presidents as a matter of policy, Trump’s predecessors in the Oval Office evidently have made their returns public while they were being scrutinized. Now, using Trump’s logic, he could use those routine reviews as an excuse to keep his returns under wraps for as long as he’s president.
Anyway, it will be up to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig or more likely his boss, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, to decide whether to comply with the request from Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.). Not that the law gives them much choice in the matter — it appears to allow Neal to request access to any person’s tax returns for any reason. And given that Congress adopted the law during the scandal-ridden administration of President Harding to make sure it could obtain executive-branch officials’ returns without the executive branch’s approval, the legislative history suggests Neal is on solid ground here.
Neal wanted an answer from the IRS by Wednesday, and the signs were that he wouldn’t get one in time. Regardless, it’s really hard to imagine the IRS giving over Trump’s returns. Instead, the battle will go to court, where it will probably rage until after the 2020 elections have mooted the issue. This is not a rule-of-law administration.
But then, this really is a fight about power. It’s worth remembering the warnings that Mnuchin sounded before the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. According to news outlet the Hill, Mnuchin raised the specter of Nixonian retaliation, noting that the Ways and Means Committee used to be led by a Republican: “I am sure there are many prominent Democrats who are relieved that when [Rep.] Kevin Brady [R-Texas] was chairman of the committee that he didn’t request specific returns.”
Another Republican, Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin, drove that point home in another congressional hearing, the Hill reported. “I don’t know if Hillary and Bill [Clinton] want theirs released and if [Barack] Obama wants his,” Duffy said. “We can play this game out.”