The first two years of the Trump administration, Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress and could quash any movement to compel the release of President Trump’s tax returns without much public discussion. Now that Democrats control the House, and have the legal power to get the tax returns, Republicans have been forced to muster positive arguments for why Trump should be able to conceal his financial information.
Given that every presidential candidate for four decades, other than Donald Trump, has released their tax returns, and that the law enables Congress to acquire anybody’s tax returns, it seems like a slam-dunk case for why Congress should be able to look at Trump’s. But Trump does not want anybody to see his tax returns, and so reasons to support his position must be supplied.
1. Democrats don’t know what the tax returns will show. “What is remarkable is that even the most aggressive Democrats don’t seem to have a clear idea what they will find in the returns. They’re just sure there must be something bad in there,” writes Byron York, in a column calling the Democratic plan the “ultimate fishing expedition.”
It’s certainly true that Democrats don’t know exactly what’s in the Trump tax returns. That’s why they want them — if they did know everything already, they wouldn’t need to get them. On the other hand, there is ample reason to suspect the Trump tax returns contain information of high public interest, if not multiple outright crimes. When the New York Times dug into Trump’s New York tax information, it found proof of massive tax fraud.
Reporters have found evidence of Trump engaging in corruption, fraud, money laundering, and lots and lots of covert dealings with Russia. That’s just the stuff journalists have managed to suss out so far. The tax returns may well also turn up other crimes, because Trump is a crook. But the sheer scope of incriminating evidence that might turn up in a look at the president’s tax returns is not a very compelling reason to keep them private.
2. Trump won, so what are you gonna do. The Boston Herald editorializes that “Democrats have not gotten over the 2016 presidential election” and, by scrutinizing Trump’s tax returns, “harangue and harass the president with the ultimate hope that they can unearth some evidence of criminality somewhere.”
The editorial oddly does not deny the likelihood that Democrats will unearth evidence of criminality, it simply hinges its case on the supposition that Democrats have no right to scrutinize the criminal who defeated them.
3. Republicans will take revenge. If Congress uses the law to get Trump’s tax returns, it could target other people, ones who aren’t presidents with a long record of criminal financial activity. “Where does it end?” [GOP congressman Mike] Kelly asked. “What about the tax returns of the Speaker? Members of Congress? Federal employees? Or, for that matter, any political donors? There is no end in sight for those whose tax information may be in jeopardy.”
Representative Devin Nunes put a finer point on the threat: “Once you go down the road, there’s no turning back, because then it ratchets up. Because at some point, Republicans will be back in power. There are lots of people we could have subpoenaed their tax returns the last few years that would be very interesting.”
It’s true, the law allows Congress to get anybody’s tax returns. Maybe it’s dangerous to give Congress that power, but that’s an argument against passing a law creating this power in the first place. Since it already exists, why not use it in a case where an extremely compelling public interest exists?
If Republicans are worried about the potential for the abuse of private citizens, they could repeal the law letting Congress look at anybody’s tax returns and replace it with a narrower law that applies only to high-ranking officials like the president. But since Republicans oppose laws to force the president to publish his tax returns, here we are.
One common thread through all these defenses is that they take Trump’s decision to break precedent and conceal his tax returns as a given. From there, they focus all the scrutiny on Democrats and their nefarious motives for getting the tax returns. And so none of Trump’s defenders have bothered to construct a motive for Trump’s decision to conceal his tax returns. It’s just something we must all accept. The president has done business with, and employed, a large number of criminals, is under state and federal investigation for a wide array of alleged crimes, but his decision to keep his financial information private apparently tells us nothing whatsoever about the secrets it may contain.