President Donald Trump and his advisers have run the gamut of excuses for not releasing his tax returns. There was the audit excuse (which the IRS has made clear doesn’t exist). There’s the do-it-later promise that never manifests. There was the claim that only reporters cared about his taxes (despite numerous polls showing that average Americans want to see them, too). More recently, there’s the “congressional overreach” and “dangerous precedent” argument that somehow a president releasing details of his personal finances, as every modern Oval Office occupant has done, would simply be beyond the pale. And then there’s what can only be described as the peak moment of chutzpah — White House press secretary Sarah Sanders observation last Sunday that Congress isn’t “smart enough” to understand the financial complexities involved.
That’s pretty galling. Not because there aren’t some low SAT scores hanging out in the U.S. Capitol but because you don’t have to go so far as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s alleged observation that his former boss is “dumb as a rock” to conclude that if the president can understand it, surely somebody in the legislative branch can, too. Congress reviews all kinds of matters that are beyond the average person’s comfort level, including actual rocket science — like how much NASA should be spending on space exploration and whether the throw-weights of the next generation of ballistic missiles are adequate. Just as happens in the executive branch, House Democrats have a bunch of smart folks around to dissect the details and explain them. But then everybody, including Ms. Sanders, knows that.
No, what we have here is a White House dead set against releasing those tax returns and Democrats, including House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, just as committed to reviewing six years of them. The result has been a bunch of new reasons to refuse the request popping up by the day that have to be debunked one by one. Meanwhile, the law on this is pretty clear. It says the Treasury Department “shall” release “any” IRS return requested. And the current argument against that from Mr. Trump’s legal team? That the law only applies when there is a “legitimate legislative purpose.”
Now, we can’t look into the heart of every House Democrat. There may well be some who are delighted by the prospect of producing the returns exclusively to embarrass the president on relatively minor matters like whether he’s truly a billionaire or how much (or little) he gives to charity. If that’s all there is to this dispute, then maybe the Trump team has a point. But there’s plenty of evidence that a lot more is involved. There could be tax avoidance schemes that are flat-out illegal. There may be evidence of serious financial misconduct. It may be white collar crime and outright fraud. And why should Americans think so? Gentle readers, we give you six words: All County Building Supply & Maintenance.
Sound familiar? On Monday, The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize, the highest award in newspaper journalism, for its 18-month investigation into how Mr. Trump and his relatives benefited from a half-billion-dollar tax avoidance scheme. All County was the shell company created by the Trump family in 1992 that was used to skim millions of dollars from Fred Trump’s business empire by marking up purchases and then sending the proceeds as untaxed gifts to Donald Trump and his relatives. The added cost was then used to justify rent increases for thousands of tenants. If something similar is taking place now, Congress ought to know about it — and take appropriate policy action whether it’s politically embarrassing or not.
The IRS is supposed to catch those kinds of abuses, but they often don’t, particularly as the budget for audits has diminished over the years. Indeed, it’s no secret that federal tax filers have a smaller chance of being audited this year than at any time in decades. The agency’s funding has been cut by 25 percent since 2010. The IRS has the same number of auditors today that it had in the 1950s when the U.S. economy was one-seventh of its current size. The question shouldn’t be why Congress is reviewing Mr. Trump’s tax returns, it’s why members aren’t looking at a lot more. Clearly, the IRS needs all the assistance it can get.
Will the Treasury Department meet Chairman Neal’s latest deadline — to present the returns to his committee by 5 p.m. next Tuesday, April 23? Based on recent history, probably not. The matter is likely headed to court — perhaps by way of New York and the hunt to release Mr. Trump’s state tax returns. Either way, there’s simply too much history of questionable financial practices for the American electorate to be shortchanged on this matter. Just as Democratic candidates for president are now releasing their returns voluntarily, Mr. Trump should be obliged to release his whether ordered by Congress, the courts or New York state.