Throughout his adult life, Donald Trump has escaped the consequences of his actions. Trump has run out the clock on several grand juries. Trials and audits showed he hid records. He has lied under oath, ratted out others, required associates to sign lifetime secrecy agreements and shielded his finances thanks to the secrecy and complexity of tax law.
Trump seems vulnerable to attack, like Achilles, the mythical Greek warrior whose mother Thetis dipped him in the river Styx so he would be invulnerable. But Trump has an Achilles’ heel. A political arrow that strikes at Trump’s one vulnerable spot is flowing faster than the river Styx toward Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s desk.
Candidate Trump promised to make his tax returns public, but then reneged, claiming he is under audit. That made no sense because once you sign your tax return declaring it “true, accurate and complete,” disclosing the return only allows voters to see what you did.
Trump also will not produce an audit letter, an anodyne document that reveals nothing except the type of tax return and year or years under audit.
Now Trump is trying to block the chief tax writer in Congress from confidentially obtaining the last six years of his tax returns under a 1924 anticorruption law. It requires that any returns “shall be furnished upon written request.” The president has the same power, and both the White House and Congress exercise this law routinely.
Trump ordered Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to break the law, Section 6103 of the tax code, the first violation in the 95 years since enactment.
Mnuchin’s involvement suggests that Charles Rettig, the Beverly Hills tax lawyer who Trump named IRS commissioner, refused Trump’s order. That would have put Rettig’s California law license at risk, potentially ending his lucrative career.
In addition to forcing House Democrats to seek court orders to enforce the law, Trump sued his banks and accountants, hoping to block them from turning over financial and tax records.
While Trump hopes the courts will slow-walk the case, delaying a final ruling until after the 2020 elections, lawmakers in Albany are moving ahead.
Brad Hoylman, a Democratic state senator from Manhattan, sponsored Senate bill 5072A. It would require state tax authorities to cooperate with requests from Congress by turning over tax returns and related information.
New York’s definition of state income follows federal tax law with minor exceptions. In addition, state tax auditors have, or can get under existing sharing agreements, Trump’s federal tax filings.
Hoylman’s bill aims at Trump’s most vulnerable spot. Trump claims he’s a billionaire despite posting the largest known business losses of any individual American. His recent tax returns would reveal financial practices and income sources he hides from scrutiny unlike every president back to Richard Nixon.
Hoylman also sponsored Senate bill 2271, which would require publicly posting five years of tax information for the president, vice president, U.S. senators and statewide elected officials. His Senate bill 32A would apply to candidates for these offices.
The latter two bills are caught in the political eddies in Albany, but the State Senate has passed the first bill and Democrats control the Assembly, making passage highly likely.
Cuomo, a Democrat, has fudged on whether he would sign the legislation. In June, when he hesitated to authorize a criminal investigation of the Trump Foundation, readers of the nonprofit DCReport flooded his office with telephone calls and emails, and he shifted his position.
New Yorkers should encourage him to do the right thing and sign Hoylman’s bill.
David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who has covered Donald Trump for 31 years, has written two bestselling books on Trump and is co-founder of DCReport.org. He teaches at the Syracuse University College of Law.