With the House Ways and Means Committee chairman requesting President Donald Trump’s tax returns on Wednesday, the White House’s representatives were tasked with explaining how the president could refuse to release them. They did so with a healthy dose of classic Trumpian spin.
Of course, illogic has long been a feature of Trump and his allies’ excuses for keeping his returns hidden. You see, he can’t release his returns because the IRS is auditing him! Yes, it’s true he can’t provide proof that he was being audited during the 2016 election campaign, nor point to a law prohibiting him from releasing his returns while under audit. And sure, almost every other president since Richard Nixon has released his tax returns even though the IRS automatically audits a sitting president’s personal tax returns. But that doesn’t mean he’s hiding anything! You’ll just have to take him at his word, the president’s defenders say.
Besides, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told “Fox News Sunday”: “That’s an issue that was already litigated during the election. Voters knew the president could have given his tax returns, they knew that he didn’t, and they elected him anyway, which is, of course, what drives the Democrats crazy.” Yes, “the election.” Never mind that other election that happened more recently, in which voters gave Democrats the power to subpoena Trump’s returns. Never mind that two-thirds of voters think he should disclose them. Once an issue is litigated in one election, in Mulvaney’s view, it’s closed forever.
In his letter to the IRS requesting Trump’s returns, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, noted that the committee has “oversight and legislative authority over our Federal tax laws,” including whether the IRS “is enforcing the laws in a fair and impartial manner.” And, notably, the president’s defenders aren’t contesting that Congress is in bounds to ask whether an agency headed by a presidential appointee is reviewing that president’s tax returns the same way it would handle anyone else’s.
But fear not, the president’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow has found a novel approach to oversight: If Democrats “want to know if the IRS is doing its job and auditing the president,” he said on ABC’s “This Week,” “well, they could ask the IRS, what job are they doing?” It’s a stroke of genius from Sekulow: Just ask an agency whether they’re operating by the book, but don’t waste time checking whether their answers are truthful! Think of the time this will save future Congresses.
Sekulow and Mulvaney have one final objection: This is just politics. “We should not be in a situation where individual private tax returns are used for political purposes,” complained Sekulow. “(Democrats) know the terms under law by which the IRS can give them documents, but a political hit job is not one of those reasons,” said Mulvaney. According to Sekulow and Mulvaney, because the Democrats’ request may end up being politically damaging for the president, that makes the request purely political and therefore legally illegitimate. If that means almost all congressional oversight requests – the majority of which may be politically embarrassing to a White House – are political hit jobs, so be it.
Distressingly, these various attempts to say “2+2=5” may matter little in the end. The president has said he will fight this all the way to the Supreme Court. All Trump would need is five of the nine justices — two of whom he appointed — to declare that 2+2 now equals 5. Should that come to pass, the president would be free to continue hiding this key information from the public, regardless of ethics and logic.
James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.