The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to block the release of former President Donald Trump’s tax returns means, in the words of House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, that his committee will “now conduct the oversight that we’ve sought the last 3 1/2 years.” We hope so, but the clock is ticking, and if the ex-president has one undeniable skill it is in stalling efforts to shed light on his possible ethical and legal issues.
The court’s order Tuesday, which was unsigned and did not note any dissents, means the Treasury Department can release six years of Mr. Trump’s tax returns as early as Monday. This will give Rep. Neal, a First District congressman from Springfield, and his committee only a month to go through the documents and ideally release a public report. In January, the Republican Party will retake the House majority and if the Neal committee hasn’t completed its business it is expected that the new leadership will pull the plug on the investigation.
One can easily imagine the high dudgeon of Republican officials if Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden had refused to release their tax returns. And that high dudgeon would have been justified. But even though Mr. Trump has hurt his party in three consecutive elections, Republican officials haven’t shaken their fealty to — and fear of — their leader, and remain unwilling to hold him to the same standards they demand of their opponents.
This saga began in 2016 when candidate Trump refused to release his tax returns as had his opponents and past presidential contenders, raising the question of what he had to hide. Mr. Trump asserted that he couldn’t release the returns because they were being audited, but tax experts say an audit does not prevent returns from being released.
After the Democrats gained control of the House in 2019, Rep. Neal’s committee sued the Trump Justice Department for release of the documents under a law giving the committee the authority to see any taxpayer’s documents.
The case immediately ground to a halt when it was assigned to a Trump-appointed judge, Trevor McFadden, of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia, who waited 2 1/2 years before ruling in 2021 that the committee had a legal right to the returns based under a “long line of Supreme Court cases” requiring courts to defer to valid congressional inquiries. Judge McFadden then recommended that the returns not be publicized even though that is permitted under the same law that empowered Chairman Neal to request them.
Judge McFadden wasn’t done with his foot-dragging as he declined to allow the records to be released until his decision was reviewed by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. When a three-judge appeals panel upheld Judge McFadden’s decision, the Trump legal team appealed to the full court. When it declined to hear the case last month, Trump and company requested that the Supreme Court extend Judge McFadden’s block on the release of the information, which the court did until it finally removed the block last month.
Trump complained that the Supreme Court action was unprecedented, but it was Trump who broke precedent by not releasing his returns. In 1973, a House committee received president Richard Nixon’s tax returns from the IRS the same day it requested them. The committee decided he owed an additional $500,000 in taxes over four years and issued a report on his returns. The Neal committee is following this precedent.
It was speculated six years ago that Trump didn’t want voters to learn he wasn’t as rich as he claimed and/or that he was indebted to Russia, Saudi Arabia or other rogue nations. More information has since emerged about the specific reasons for Mr. Trump’s determination to keep his tax records secret, beginning with allegations by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that Mr. Trump bragged about undervaluing the worth of his assets to reduce his tax burden. The New York Times in 2020 obtained tax data over 18 years revealing that Mr. Trump didn’t pay federal taxes in 11 of those years and claimed a $73 million tax refund the IRS is looking into. The returns to be released by the Neal committee should cast light on these and other tax-related Trump issues.
It should be noted that the Supreme Court’s right wing majority, which includes three Trump appointees, has regularly denied Mr. Trump’s challenges. Before this example of a week ago, the Court most notably refused to hear his baseless allegations about the theft of the 2020 presidential election by Joe Biden. Other judges in key states, many of them Trump appointees, also defended our democracy by rejecting the Trump team’s efforts to execute a coup d’etat through the judicial system.
President Trump is now running for president again, encumbered by six years of baggage. His refusal to willingly release his tax returns, and whatever information is gained from the release of those returns, will add to the baggage that should disqualify him from consideration for another term.