Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee were so busy patting themselves on the back after Wednesday’s partisan vote to publicly release former President Donald Trump’s tax returns that they forgot one thing: explaining why this is legally necessary or proper. The vote wasn’t an attempt to uphold the law or demonstrate illegality but rather to satisfy the curiosity of millions of Americans who just want to view a billionaire ex-president’s tax returns.
It’s almost prurient, as if Congress has agreed to release tax porn for public viewing. Just because the committee chairman, Rep. Richard Neal, praised his colleagues for not being “punitive” or “malicious” doesn’t make their decision right. When reporters pressed members to explain why the release was necessary, they appeared to struggle for a legal justification. That’s probably because existing federal law doesn’t require prospective, sitting or former presidents to release their returns.
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Such release is strictly voluntary, which all major-party candidates since the Nixon administration have done as a way of demonstrating they have nothing to hide. Trump chose not to. Any implication that he had something to hide was a political risk he was willing to take.
Trump was within his legal right not to release his returns, regardless of the bogus excuse he gave that he couldn’t as long as an Internal Revenue Service audit was underway. The Ways and Means Committee short-circuited his right to privacy.
Several states have passed laws requiring candidates to publicly release their tax returns or be denied a place on the ballot. Congress should consider a similar federal law or, more to the point, one that requires all presidential candidates as well as past or current presidents to release their tax returns. But because Congress hasn’t done that, Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee had to concoct a legal standard regarding Trump.
In all likelihood, the six years of returns now being prepared for release contain lots of salacious details. In all likelihood, Trump skirted the law and bilked the U.S. Treasury out of millions — even hundreds of millions — of dollars in taxes owed. If so, let the Internal Revenue Service prove it.
On that score, the IRS did fail glaringly in its legal requirement to audit Trump as a sitting president. For his first two years in office, no such audit occurred — in violation of the law. Why that happened, whether through dereliction of duty or pressure from Trump, are legitimate questions Congress should seek to answer.
The job of Congress is to uphold the law, which is where Republicans fell down when it came to investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection. Democrats prove themselves no less prone to putting politics above the law when they deny a citizen — even if he was the president — a right to tax-reporting privacy. This decision doesn’t pass the smell test.