There are very good reasons for wanting to see President Donald Trump’s tax returns — and some bad ideas about how to make that happen.
Trump, first as a candidate and now as president, has refused to release his federal filings, claiming that they are under audit, although there is no Internal Revenue Service rule stopping him from doing so. Since Richard Nixon, all presidents and all major party nominees have voluntarily released their returns. This is to show they are not using public office to enrich or otherwise benefit themselves, or making foreign-policy decisions against the best interests of the nation.
Now Rep. Richard Neal, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has made a formal request to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for five years of Trump’s personal returns and that of eight organizations linked to the president. Neal says a broad 1924 anti-corruption law passed after the Teapot Dome scandal gives him the authority to do so. Although the law requires the information to be confidentially transmitted to the chairman only, Mnuchin refuses to cooperate. Neal is likely to subpoena the returns, initiating a legal showdown over the intent an obscure law; this is litigation the federal courts should expedite.
What’s clear already, however, is that more clarity is needed about when the IRS can release confidential files. As we note the April 15 deadline for filing individual tax returns, there are sweeping privacy protections in the IRS code, with few exceptions, most notably if they are required for a criminal investigation. Those must remain strong, but allow for legitimate congressional oversight.
The better and simpler path is for Congress to pass a bill to require the president, as well as candidates for the White House, to make public their tax returns and related financial documents.
The disclosure of Trump’s taxes also is getting scrutiny from the New York State Legislature. Under consideration, however, is a flawed and blatantly political measure unlikely to survive judicial review.
Sen. Brad Hoylman, a Manhattan Democrat, has a bill that would allow the state to release, in compliance with a request from Congress, the state returns of a U.S. president. Albany is not known for its subtlety.
A better approach is a comprehensive bill to require the release of New York personal tax returns by all officials elected statewide, all state legislators and all elected federal officials who claim the state as their legal residence, which right now just so happens to includes the U.S. president.
Then taxpayers could see for themselves whether their elected officials have any conflicts of interest. This is especially true now for members of the State Legislature, who soon will be the highest paid in the nation in return for limiting their outside income to 15 percent of their salary. The governor, attorney general and comptroller all have released their returns.
There is a credible case for demanding Trump’s tax returns, just as there is one to be made that all state and federal officeholders from New York do so as well. — The editorial board