Donald Trump is the first president since Jimmy Carter not to release his tax returns to the public. He and his surrogates have deployed a battery of ever-shifting excuses for this, most commonly that he is under some audit. An audit, of course, doesn't prevent anyone from releasing their return, and audits hardly ever take three years. There may never have been an audit in the first place.
It's obvious Trump will not release his tax returns, ever. The only way the American public will get them is if someone forces them out. House Democrats have the clear legal authority to get those returns. So far they have inexplicably failed to even try. They — in particular House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) — need to stop being such babies and get it done.
Here's the legal background. As Steven Rosenthal of the Tax Policy Center writes, a section of 26 U.S. Code § 6103 states that if the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee submits a written request for any tax return, the treasury secretary "shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request." Documents that identify an individual taxpayer just have to be seen in closed executive session. From there, the committee can decide to send them on to the full House: "Any return or return information obtained by or on behalf of such committee pursuant to the provisions of this subsection may be submitted by the committee to the Senate or the House of Representatives, or to both." The House can then vote to release them publicly, if they wish.
Moreover, oversight of conflicts of interest is literally the entire reason this law came about in the first place. It was passed in 1924, in response to the Teapot Dome scandal and then-Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's refusal to reveal his possible conflicts of interest.
That sort of thing is exactly why the American people deserve to see Trump's tax returns. No president has ever continued to operate a vast business empire while in office. The conflicts of interests — plus instances of blatantly abusing his power to enrich himself — probably number in the hundreds. The man is plainly a crook.
So legally, it's open-and-shut — indeed, as Harry Litman writes, "there is not a single case suggesting that the secretary has discretion not to comply with such a written request by the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee."
Of course, Trump is probably not just going to hand his returns over simply because the law says he has to. He'll kick up a big fuss, try to drag it out in the courts, yell about how Democrats are doing a WITCH HUNT, and so on. That's our president for you.
This appears to be why Neal is taking an ultra-cautious approach. "This has to be part of a carefully prepared and documented legal case," he said in January. "It will be done judiciously and methodically, but it will be done." He's not even promising he'll try to get it done before the 2020 election.
This reasoning is moronic. As Greg Sargent writes at The Washington Post, Trump's contempt for the law militates in the opposite direction. They should instead kick up their own fuss to put maximum pressure on the administration — holding press conferences to demand the returns, subpoenaing people to testify, and so on. Some Democrats are reportedly worried that they might violate the law by improperly disclosing the returns, but the same is true of the administration — if Treasury Secretary Stephen Mnuchin refuses to turn over the returns, he will be breaking the law. That's called leverage.
Indeed, treating this as a major scandal actually strengthens the legal argument. This isn't some matter of arcane technical dispute. It's an instance of blatant lawbreaking and interference with Congress' constitutional responsibilities. Making out as though it's some super-complicated issue creates the impression of legal uncertainty where none is present, while going slow casts doubt on the oversight rationale. If it is vitally important for Congress to see the president's returns, why on Earth aren't they trying to get them as fast as possible?
It's also a winning political issue. Sixty percent of Americans say Democrats should force Trump to release his returns — and railing against a billionaire oligarch president for not coming clean with the public about his money cuts into his populist persona.
Democrats like Neal appear to believe that the way to be "responsible" is to be timid about wielding power. But when faced with corruption like Trump's, the actually responsible thing to do is to fight hard. Constitutional principles don't defend themselves. It's time for Neal and company to step up and assert themselves.