You just know President Donald Trump’s tax returns are bad. Really bad. Humiliating. Mortifying. Compromising. Incriminating. Fatal to his political fortunes.
Why else would the White House be fighting so hard against a formal demand issued April 3 by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., that the Internal Revenue Service turn over six years of Trump’s personal, business and charity-related returns for a confidential examination by members of the committee?
After all, conventionally humiliating, mortifying, compromising and seemingly incriminating behavior hasn’t eroded his support. Trump shatters norms and degrades his office with such regularity that even those who are horrified by his frightening unconventional presidency are numb to it.
He famously boasted during the 2016 campaign that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters,” so the information in his various tax returns must be worse than that.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has declared that Democrats “want (Trump’s) tax returns to destroy him,” an accusation that contains a hidden admission.
So you also just know that not even House Democrats are going to see them — at least not until after the November 2020 presidential election renders them politically moot.
Should they see them?
Yes! We all should. Citizens ought to have comprehensive financial information about our president and major-party presidential nominees. This is why showing tax returns has been a norm for some 50 years and why several recent polls have shown that roughly 2 in 3 Americans want Trump to disclose his.
And the law explicitly allows Congress to see them. Specifically, Section 6103 of the IRS code says that the agency “shall furnish” certain congressional committee chairs “with any return of return information” they request, so long as they review the information in “closed executive session.”
That obscure, seldom-used 1924 law doesn’t say Congress needs a subpoena or any reason whatsoever to look at usually confidential tax return information.
But here’s where it gets complicated — so complicated that the legal fight seems destined to drag on for years.
In a letter challenging the Democrats’ demand, William Consovoy, an attorney representing Trump, pointed to Watkins v. United States, a 1957 U.S. Supreme Court decision that defined limits on congressional investigations.
“There is no congressional power to expose for the sake of exposure,” wrote Chief Justice Earl Warren for a 6-1 majority that upheld the right of a witness before a subcommittee of the House Un-American Activities Committee to refuse to answer questions about whether certain people he knew had been or ever were members of the Communist Party.
“The power of the Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process,” wrote Warren, noting the general need to root out corruption, inefficiency and waste. “But, broad as is this power of inquiry, it is not unlimited. There is no general authority to expose the private affairs of individuals without justification.”
Rep. Neal’s request for Trump’s taxes said the Ways and Means Committee needs them because it “is considering legislative proposals and conducting oversight related to our federal tax laws, including, but not limited to, the extent to which the IRS audits and enforces the federal tax laws against a president.”
Consovoy called shenanigans on this stated reason: “If Chairman Neal genuinely wants to review how the IRS audits presidents, why is he seeking tax returns and return information covering the four years before President Trump took office?” said Consovoy’s letter. “Why is he not requesting information about the audits of previous presidents?
“His request is a transparent effort by one political party to harass an official from the other party because (members of that party) dislike his politics and speech.”
It’s odd that attempting to require a president to conform to an expected contemporary practice, one that during the 2016 campaign he promised he would conform to “shortly,” is now seen as harassment.
But given the evident stakes here and Trump’s obsession with keeping his financial secrets, I suppose it is.
How will the lower courts and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court rule on this dispute?
All I know is that the law tends to move glacially. Briefs, arguments, opinions and appeals take time. Lots of time. Almost certainly more time than we have before voters go to the polls again to render their verdict on Donald Trump.
Eric Zorn is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.