Washington is terribly divided these days, but there is at least one thing everyone — the Trump administration, members of Congress from both parties, journalists, cab drivers — clearly agrees on: If the public ever got to see President Donald Trump's tax returns, it would be utterly disastrous for him.
Though they haven't done it yet, Democrats are planning to utilize a law allowing the House Ways and Means committee to obtain any Americans' tax returns to demand that the IRS turn them over. Once they have them, the committee can vote to release them to the entire House.
Terrified of that prospect, the administration is preparing to do everything in its power to keep it from happening, as Politico reports:
"The new House Democratic majority is widely expected to test one of Donald Trump's ultimate red lines by demanding the president's personal tax returns — and the Trump administration has been gearing up for months to fight back hard.
"Trump's Treasury Department is readying plans to drag the expected Democratic request for Trump's past tax filings, which he has closely guarded, into a quagmire of arcane legal arguments.
"At the same time, officials intend to publicly cast the request as an nakedly partisan exercise. The two-pronged scheme was developed by a handful of top political appointees and lawyers inside the department — with the ultimate goal of keeping the president's past returns private, according to four people familiar with the administration's approach."
Legal experts make clear that the law is not ambiguous and the president can't simply order the Treasury Department to keep his returns secret. So the administration's plan seems to be to wage a PR battle while keeping the matter slogging through the courts for as long as possible — say, past November 2020.
While Trump's refusal to release his returns — something every party nominee and president has done for the last half century — has been controversial since 2016, once Democrats demand the returns it will become an intense controversy playing out on television and the front pages of newspapers. That means that Republican officeholders will be forced to take a position, which they haven't really had to do before. And they'll be expected to defend the president's refusal to allow the public to know where he's getting money from, who he owes money to, and how far his financial interests extend.
Trump himself began in 2016 by saying he couldn't release the returns since he was being audited. This was a lie. The IRS doesn't prevent you from releasing your returns if you're being audited, and it's not like you have to keep something secret from them, since they already have the returns.
Then once he took office, the White House stopped bothering to offer a rationale at all, responding to any question about the returns by saying that Trump won, so forget it. "The White House response is that he's not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn't care. They voted for him," said Kellyanne Conway just after Trump took office, and that has remained their position ever since.
So imagine you're a Republican member of Congress. When this controversy becomes intense, you're going to have to answer two questions. The first is, should Trump release his returns? If they're going to be steadfastly loyal to Trump — which is the most important principle the GOP holds today — the answer they'll have to give is no. The second question is, why not?
And what will they say? Is there a reasonable answer to that question that you would be comfortable applying to any president of either party? Is any Republican able to say with a straight face that it's not in the public interest to know everything possible about the president's financial dealings? Would they have had the same answer if Hillary Clinton had refused to release her returns?
There is a dodge that Republicans can employ to those questions, and it's one I expect most of them will use: "That's up to the president. I'm more concerned with the vital issues facing the American people." In other words, please don't make me defend Trump.
But let's be clear about one thing: There has never before in American history been a president for whom it was more important that his tax returns be opened to scrutiny.
Unlike previous presidents, Trump not only held on to his business interests after he took office, he has made clear that he expects everyone from members of his party to foreign governments to put money in his pocket by patronizing those businesses. He has an extraordinary record of creating grifts and swindles to separate the gullible and desperate from their money, from Trump University to the Trump Network to the Trump Institute. His foundation was revealed to be essentially a scam, and he was forced to shut it down.
Perhaps most incredibly, an extensively documented investigation revealed four months ago that Trump and his family planned and executed an absolutely massive tax fraud scheme during the 1990s that defrauded the federal government of hundreds of millions of dollars. Were it not for the statute of limitations, he would probably be facing prosecution for it.
The things in Trump's past are appalling enough, but it's his current debts and business interests that we really need to understand. Trump himself obviously can't be relied on to inform us of any conflicts of interest he might have; just look at how often he lied about Russia, claiming to have no business interests there when in fact during the campaign he was pursuing a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow that could have netted him hundreds of millions of dollars.
Republicans are as aware of all this as Democrats are. They know who the president is. If they actually believed that Trump's returns would show him to be a man of unimpeachable integrity who had committed no wrongdoing, they'd be perfectly happy to have the public see them. But we all know that's not what the returns will show.