Congress and the Trump administration have reached a standoff over the president’s tax returns: House Democrats have asked the Treasury Department to turn them over, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has made it clear that he won’t be doing so anytime soon.
It’s a conflict that the courts are best placed to resolve — and the sooner the better.
U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon have voluntarily released their tax returns, seeing it as essential to gaining their constituencies’ confidence (the exception is Gerald Ford, who disclosed only an overview). Trump broke with this tradition during his presidential campaign, citing an audit that prevented him from providing the information. He’s still using the same excuse, although no rule actually bars people under audit from releasing their returns.
To force the disclosure, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal has invoked a 1924 law giving him the authority to request any taxpayer’s return from the Treasury secretary, who in turn “shall furnish’’ it. Most experts agree that the law clearly requires Treasury to comply. Just two issues: There’s some debate over whether Neal needs a legislative purpose for the request, and the law doesn’t say when the returns should be furnished.
To head off attacks on his motives, Neal has specified that the committee needs the returns to ensure that the Internal Revenue Service is properly auditing the president. Opponents, though, can argue that the demand for Trump’s personal and business returns from years before he took office, along with the fact that he didn’t initiate an investigation through Treasury’s internal watchdog (as has been done in the past), undermine the request’s validity.
Then there’s the question of timing. Unless some authority compels Mnuchin to respond by a certain date, he can drag his feet indefinitely. If, for example, he puts it off until the end of the current congressional session in 2021, the process will have to start over — possibly in a different political environment, with Trump either out of office or holding more sway in the legislature.
Here’s where the judicial system comes in. This is a matter of interpreting the law, which is what the courts were created to do. They’re also uniquely equipped to demand compliance: It would be a lot harder for Trump to flout a judge’s order than a decades-old tradition of disclosing tax returns. Although either side might decry the ruling depending on who appointed the judge, a timely decision would nonetheless provide much-needed clarity, for both this and future cases.
Hence, Neal should act quickly to issue a subpoena, which would trigger court proceedings in the probable event that Treasury refused to comply. And judicial officials should move no less quickly to handle a case that — given the stakes and the parties involved — could reach the Supreme Court. Dragging the dispute out until it’s no longer relevant to the Trump administration would both waste taxpayer money and effectively produce the same result as denying Neal’s request.
Ultimately, the U.S. needs better laws on presidential disclosure. House lawmakers passed a bill last month that would require presidents to release 10 years of tax returns, and some states are considering making such transparency a prerequisite for appearing on election ballots. Another solution might be enhanced financial reporting, which could provide more useful information than the tax returns.
For now, though, the courts are best positioned to decide what the people’s representatives can know about the president’s finances. May they do so without delay.