Far from a witch hunt or partisan political attack, Democratic congressional efforts to obtain President Donald Trump’s tax returns are a necessary exercise of legislative oversight responsibility. The president’s returns, and those of his 500 businesses, could answer essential questions about his fitness for office, and serve as an invaluable guide to what needs fixing in our tax code. Congress has a duty to pursue both investigations, and do so promptly.
On Thursday, the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee will hold a hearing on a proposal to require presidents and presidential candidates to release their tax returns. But Congress already has the duty and the right to obtain Trump’s tax returns. Under a 1924 law enacted in the wake of another administration marked by legal challenges and potential conflicts of interest, the chair of each of three tax-focused committees has the authority to obtain the tax returns of any U.S. citizen, including the president.
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This power has for good reason been exercised sparingly. It helped Congress unravel the Watergate scandal of the 1970s and was used as recently as 2014 by Republican lawmakers.
Congress should act with urgency because it’s likely Trump will resist its efforts. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who would ultimately decide on whether to honor a request for Trump’s taxes, has been noncommittal, saying only that he “will review any request with the Treasury general counsel for legality.” That could set up a legal challenge that might last months if not years, perhaps even past the 2020 election.
But voters deserve answers now, well before the next presidential election. Here’s why.
The law is broken and now it benefits Trump
First, a review of Trump’s taxes would highlight defects in our tax laws, as explained in a recent report from our organization. As a billionaire who has apparently paid zero federal income taxes in multiple years, Trump could serve as an illustrative example of how the wealthy are able to avoid paying their fair share and help spur urgently needed reform.
Second, we need to know whether and how much Trump personally gains from the tax policies he promotes and signs into law. We estimate that he and his family could save as much as $22 million from the Trump-GOP tax cuts enacted in 2017. Citizens have a right to know whether their leaders are pursuing policies for their private benefit instead of the public interest.
Another important issue is whether Trump has violated federal law by illegally evading taxes or has shown a disregard for his obligation to pay his fair share by engaging in flagrant tax dodging. Last year, The New York Times published an exhaustive report on “dubious” tax avoidance strategies pursued by Trump’s family over the past half-century, including what the newspaper declared to be “instances of outright fraud.”
The next pressing question is whether Trump’s global business interests have compromised the exercise of his official duties, especially the conduct of foreign policy.
Trump tax returns would reveal foreign ties
Contrary to past practice, Trump failed to transfer his assets into a blind trust upon assuming office. Therefore, he has a good idea of how government policies will impact his personal finances. Among the problematic nations he has done business with are Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Trump’s tax returns would likely reveal just how deeply involved he is in Russia and with oligarchs close to President Vladimir Putin. Charting Trump’s Russian connections might shed light on Trump’s inexplicable deference to Putin.
Trump’s pursuit of a luxury Moscow hotel deal through much of 2016 has been in the news lately as part of special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation. But Trump has sought and secured business deals and investments in Russia and with prominent Russians for some time, including all-cash real estate deals that shady businessmen use to hide and launder ill-gotten gains.
Saudi nationals and their agents have similarly been frequent buyers of Trump assets and reliable customers of his businesses, both before and since he became president. That includes spending a quarter million dollars last year at his hotel in Washington, steps from the White House, to pay the expenses of lobbyists favoring a Saudi-government position. Trump has in turn been reluctant to criticize the Saudi kingdom.
Seeking out information to guide policy reform and keeping an eye on the executive branch are central roles of Congress and its committees. Under new leadership, the House Ways and Means Committee should act promptly to obtain Trump’s tax returns in order to better identify flaws in our tax system and to judge serious legal and ethical questions confronting our president.
Frank Clemente is executive director of Americans for Tax Fairness. William Rice is a communications consultant and senior writer for the group. Follow them on Twitter: @clemente_frank and @newmediaskeptic