Opinion: The Democrats’ thin rationale for getting hold of Trump’s tax returns

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) requested six years of President Trump’s tax returns.
(J. Scott Applewhite / Associated Press)

In an editorial this week, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Releasing one’s tax returns has been a tradition of modern presidential candidates, and President Trump’s stubborn refusal to share his during the 2016 presidential race rightly prompted an outcry from those who believe voters deserve a full picture of a candidate’s finances before the election.”

To which I would add that it’s equally outrageous that Trump hasn’t followed the example of his recent predecessors and released his tax returns during his time in office.

But you can believe both of these things and still raise an eyebrow at the attempt by Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee to gain access to six years of Trump’s personal returns along with those of various Trump business entities.

In a letter to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles P. Rettig, committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) invoked a provision of the Internal Revenue Code that empowers congressional committees to obtain tax returns.


But that provision says that the Ways and Means Committee shall obtain returns that can identify a taxpayer “only when sitting in closed executive session unless such taxpayer otherwise consents in writing to such disclosure.” (Trump, it’s safe to say, would be unlikely to consent.)

Neil says that the point of this exercise is that “the American people must be assured that their government is operating properly, as laws intend.” Yet how can the people be sure of that if congressional inspection of the tax returns is done in secret? (Don’t mention leaks.)

The real problem with the committee’s request is the thinness of its rationale for obtaining Trump’s returns. In his letter to Rettig, Neal said that the committee needs the returns to help it in considering possible legislation dealing with the IRS’ auditing of presidential tax returns. And you probably thought the Democrats’ purpose was to sift through the returns in search of skullduggery!

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Now that they control the House, Democrats are understandably eager to investigate Trump and his administration. But, as I suggested here, they need to be strategic and selective.

For example, on Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee moved (too quickly in my view) to authorize subpoenas to obtain the complete report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III even though Atty. Gen. William Barr promised a redacted version by the middle of the month. Still, the case for congressional access to the Mueller report is much stronger than the case for access to Trump’s tax returns. (And Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler shrewdly is holding off serving Barr with a subpoena while he tries to negotiate with him.)

Trump is going to view any inquiry by congressional Democrats into his actions as “presidential harassment.” But that claim will have more credibility with the public if Democrats overreach in their investigations.

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