The House Ways and Means Committee voted on Wednesday to publicly release six years of Donald Trump’s federal tax returns. The vote to release the documents, which proceeded along party lines in the Democratic-controlled committee, ends a years-long legal battle over the former president’s tax returns.
Trump has been the most secretive candidate and president about his own personal finances in modern American history. By now, all but the most addled MAGA sycophants know that his purported wealth is nothing more than smoke, mirrors, and myth-making aided and abetted by reality-television show producers. I believe Trump has fought so hard to hide his tax returns precisely because they reveal that he is little more than a carnival barker who excels at putting his name on things like a dog hiking its leg against somebody else’s tree. But I could be wrong: Trump might also have wanted to keep his taxes private because they reveal even more of his crimes. These returns embarrass Trump, even though his fans both don’t care and think arithmetic has a secret liberal agenda.
Embarrassment for Trump, even without political or criminal repercussions, is, of course, satisfying. There is probably a Scandinavian word for “the joy one feels when enemies throw ketchup at walls.” But I’m not sure the public release of Trump’s tax returns accomplishes anything more than that. Moreover, I worry that the release undermines the strong and entirely proper legal arguments Congress made to get the returns in the first place.
Understand, Trump had no legal case to prevent Congress from seeing his tax returns. No citizen does. Tax returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service are government documents, and the government (Congress) can see government documents whenever the government has a legitimate reason to do so.
Trump’s taxes have been sought by journalists and law enforcement for a long time. Trump promised to release them when he ran for president, but was lying. Congress initially tried to get ahold of them during its impeachment investigation (the first one). But the request that finally made them public came from House Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) In 2019, he requested them as part of an oversight function of the IRS. But Trump’s IRS did the now-standard Republican thing of simply refusing to comply with a congressional inquiry. When President Joe Biden took office, Trump’s legal team sued to prevent the new IRS from handing over the documents.
In response to the lawsuit, Ways and Means argued that it needed the tax documents to conduct a review of the IRS’s internal process for auditing the president and vice president while they are in office. This process is standard operating procedure—as has been reported, the IRS routinely audited Barack Obama and Biden. Neal wanted to see if the IRS had in fact followed its own rules, especially considering that the IRS had been, from 2017 to 2021, run by Trump’s toady and treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin.
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In response, Trump’s team argued that Congress’s stated legal reason for seeking the documents was pretextual. They argued that the real reason Congress wanted the taxes was to hurt Trump politically, not for any legitimate legislative purpose. In an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court, Trump’s lawyers wrote: “The Committee’s purpose in requesting President Trump’s tax returns has nothing to do with funding or staffing issues at the IRS and everything to do with releasing the President’s tax information to the public.”
It’s not a great legal argument to say Congress can’t have access to a thing it should most certainly have access to because people might find out that Congress has that thing. But the conservative-controlled Supreme Court didn’t get around to ordering the release of the tax returns to Congress until late last month. It did so unanimously, by the way, because, even though the Supreme Court helped to delay this reckoning, there is, again, no legal reason to prevent Congress from accessing Trump’s taxes.
In its report on Tuesday, the House Ways and Means Committee announced that those taxes showed what Neal and House Democrats expected they would: The IRS did not audit Trump for the first two years of his presidency. The report makes clear the legitimate legislative purpose of getting Trump’s tax returns by suggesting legislation. Neal and his committee propose that Congress make IRS auditing a statute instead of an agency rule, and they say that Congress should also pass legislation making public disclosure of tax returns mandatory of presidents while they are in office.
My problem is that Neal could have issued exactly the same report and reached the same legislative aim without House Ways and Means agreeing to publicly release the actual returns.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Congress works for the American people, and everything Congress knows should be accessible by the public, absent any national security classification. Transparency is good. I can also argue that the decision to release the tax returns is academic, because a simple Freedom of Information Act request from literally any journalist would have compelled the public release of these returns, sooner or later.
Having the returns forced out of Congress by journalists is different from a lame-duck Congress releasing them in the session after the period for legislation is effectively closed. Congress has the right to make the taxes public, but I’m burdened with the knowledge of how conservative Supreme Court justices think. At oral arguments (for a different Trump tax returns case), Justice Samuel Alito quipped that everything that goes to Congress ends up in public anyway. Alito (who is apparently a supreme leaker himself) might have been projecting when he said that, but he said it as part of his reasoning to deny the government access to Trump’s tax returns.
Throughout the entire Trump taxes saga (and the Trump presidency writ large), conservative judges have entertained arguments that they should not subject Trump to the normal operation of the law, because applying the law to Trump might be used against him politically. Whether following the law helps or hurts Trump shouldn’t matter to judges, but it does to Trump’s judges. The public release of these documents might make it harder to convince conservative judges to force Republican politicians to comply with subpoenas in the future, if those judges believe that compliance will be used for political reasons. It’s a circular and cynical argument (my obvious counterargument is: If behaving lawlessly hurts one politically, one should consider following the law), but circular and cynical arguments are where conservative judges live. Conservative judges will use this to further argue that Republicans do not have to comply with congressional subpoenas.
And then there’s the problem that control of the House of Representatives flips in a couple of weeks to Marjorie Taylor Greene and her sock puppet, Kevin McCarthy. As I said, Congress has solid legal arguments for seeing any citizen’s tax returns. Nothing stops them from then releasing that information publicly. They were probably always going to do that to Biden, which is fine, since he’s the president. But I worry that they will feel emboldened to now release the taxes of any private citizen they don’t like. However low you set the bar for the new Republican Congress, it’s probably too high.
None of these bad outcomes could have been avoided by voting against the public release of the tax returns, because Republicans and Trump are entirely capable of claiming persecution even when literally nothing is happening to them. They’ve done it before. It’s just unclear to me what the public release of the taxes accomplishes. It looks politically motivated, but has no political upside. The Republican-controlled Congress will not legislate, and MAGA voters have proven that they simply don’t care about Trump’s criminality or shadiness. Virtually all the people who care about seeing Trump’s taxes hate Trump already.
Donald Trump will not be our last Republican president, which means that in all likelihood he will not be our last criminal president. The public release of his tax returns feels a little backward-looking. It’s like we’re still trying to punish the former guy, and not focusing enough on stopping the future guy.