As DC and America as a whole grappled with Robert Mueller's conclusion that there was no prosecutable evidence of any conspiracy between Donald Trump and Russian agents messing with the 2016 election, Democrats tossed out a variety of responses. Virtually all quickly called for Mueller's full report—as opposed to just the summary provided by Trump-appointed Attorney General William Barr—to see the light of day. But many tried to steer their party back toward "bread and butter" issues like healthcare. The idea seems to be that Democrats should focus on policies that affect people's live directly, which means attacking the latest Republican effort to strike the Affordable Care Act down in the courts.
But conversations with transparency and oversight advocates suggest they are far from ready to call it quits. On the contrary, while some still want to see more evidence of what Mueller actually uncovered and their ideas for how Democrats might put more pressure on Trump varied, one well-known project seemed both more achievable and politically potent than ever: forcing Trump to release his tax returns. The New York Times already uncovered substantial evidence that Trump's father cheated on his taxes to enhance his offsprings' wealth, and these advocates are eager to find out what else is under the hood of an opaque business empire that has long been accused of shady dealings and even criminal fraud.
"If you think that Donald Trump is a corrupt individual who is seeking to personally profit from the presidency, the tax returns are a necessary—if not totally sufficient—means to understand that corruption," said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research.
The only question, it seems, is whether Democrats will actually go through with such an investigation as part of the campaign trail promise they made to investigate Trump before they won back Congress last year. They succeeded in retaking the House of Representatives, so now they actually have to wield the power they earned.
On Wednesday, Republicans revealed that House Oversight Chair Elijah Cummings had made at least a vague move in that direction, requesting ten years of Trump-related financial documents from tax shop Mazars USA. A day later, the Washington Post reported in more detail on what he may be after: "statements of financial condition," or absurdly inflated appraisals of his own wealth that Trump has used in past business deals, possibly skirting the law.
The GOP members of the Oversight committee who highlighted Cummings's move were quick to bemoan what they described as a political fishing expedition for dirt on a man who at the time was a private citizen. But this was just the first, modest step in what is shaping to be a larger war over how much of Trump's sordid financial history is in the public interest—and how much people actually care about it. While Cummings's request could theoretically provide some insight into the president's tax history, Hauser, among others, has been frustrated by the slow pace of Democrats on Capitol Hill. In particular, he was miffed at with Richard Neal, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, declining so far to invoke a 1924 law requiring the Secretary of the Treasury provide tax returns when asked by someone with Neal's unique authority to do so.
That ask wouldn't technically be a subpoena, but it would likely reveal a lot more than Cummings's request, and it would show real willingness to hold the White House's proverbial feet to the fire. "In general, we've been kind of stunned at the overall absence of subpoenas being issued," Hauser said.
He wasn't alone. Across the spectrum of opposition pressure groups, there was impatience for Democrats to show some resolve.
"It seems to be there for the taking," Austin Evers, executive director of the nonpartisan watchdog group American Oversight, said of the tax returns. "Congress has a clear right to the information, and it seems like they could either confirm or disprove a lot of the speculation about the president's financial ties and allegiances by obtaining those records and making decisions that flow from that. I side with people who are getting impatient with the House not exercising its clear authority, which it promised to use."
"If Richard Neal summons the willpower to do what Democrats all said they would do and simply requests the returns, that would be a start," Daniel Schuman, policy director for the advocacy group Demand Progress, said of requesting the tax returns.
Of course, Trump and his key subordinate in this case, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, would likely insist the president's returns are beyond Congress's purview. But veterans of congressional tax policy who have studied the legal issues here were confident that was not the case. "It is obviously a proper matter of oversight," said Brad Miller, a former Democratic congressman from North Carolina who worked on the legal strategy majority Democrats used to enforce subpoenas in the Bush era.
"That claim would be frivolous," agreed Steve Rosenthal, a legal expert at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, who noted there's supposed to be a safe that contains the president's returns at the IRS. "The legal issues are a lot less significant—rather trivial—compared to the political issues. The authority is clear. I don't think there's much if any grounds to resist."
Even as there has occasionally been evidence of only a plurality of voters saying they really cared about the president releasing his tax returns, Rosenthal noted public support for the idea in the abstract has been strong and consistent. And a January ABC News/Washington Post poll specifically asking the public if House Democrats should force the release of the returns found 60 percent thought they should. That kind of majority backing the enforcement of what used to be a routine norm of presidential candidates releasing their tax information isn't shocking, of course, and such support doesn't mean Trump wouldn't resist to the bitter end—a possible Supreme Court battle, as Newt Gingrich, his ally, has previously teased.
But it does suggest chasing the taxes hard isn't exactly going to backfire, either.
"I think the president will drag his heels, will delay providing the information as long as he can, and then fight in court," Rosenthal said, predicting that, eventually, "even this US Supreme Court would find in favor of the Democrats."
The question is whether Democrats will actually try to showcase the extent of the president's financial shenanigans at a time when the party's leaders are increasingly concerned about pivoting to issues like healthcare and inequality. Certainly, it's fair to wonder if the day-to-day realities of late capitalism are more resonant for regular people than massive, Russia-style investigations.
"Fundamentally, the public may care more about the way the Department of Education is favoring student loan servicers over people with student loan debt," Evers said. "That kind of corruption has an impact on families."
But Trump's opponents have long argued that where there's smoke, there is fire. And every time the public has gained insight into Trump's taxes, we have learned more about cheating and criminality. Forcing disclosure of his tax returns could also dovetail with the issue of Trump's unpopular tax cut package, which disproportionately benefitted the rich.
Democrats may see economic issues as their path to victory in 2020, but they have an engaged activist base that wants them to use their legislative muscle to make Trump and the White House squirm. That means sooner or later, the fight Democrats promised they were going to wage with Republicans if they won Congress last year is going to come to a head. If it doesn't, Democrats risk depressing exactly the kind of voters they'll need to win back power from a huckster who knows what fake populism looks like.
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