Republicans Are Trashing the Law to Keep Trump’s Taxes Secret
This week, the House Ways and Means Committee formally moved to obtain President Trump’s federal tax forms. This move, which ought to be a mere formality, has slipped immediately into a political and legal conflict. What is so striking about the episode is how little outcry Trump’s open defiance of the law has created. It is by now simply taken for granted that this president holds himself above legal accountability and that his party will support him to the hilt.
The law governing this matter is unusually clear. The Internal Revenue Code states, “Upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Finance of the Senate, or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request.” This law has been used to examine tax returns of high-placed political officials. It was enacted in order to let Congress examine financial conflicts of interest by the administration, and forced the disclosure of a president’s tax returns (Richard Nixon).
News accounts describe this law as “obscure” or “little used,” which it is — but only because presidential candidates who receive a major-party nomination have habitually published their tax returns. It is a very strong norm that has made the law unnecessary. But the fact that the norm is backstopped by a law strengthens rather than weakens the case for enforcing it.