When Neal and his committee were defending their request in federal court, they successfully argued that the plain letter of federal law allowed them to obtain the returns, as long as they demonstrated a legitimate legislative purpose. District Court Judge Trevor N. McFadden agreed. “Congress’s power to investigate ‘is inherent in the legislative process’ and serves as an ‘adjunct to that process,’ ” he wrote in 2021, and listed legitimate purposes: “the administration of existing laws,” “proposed or possibly needed statutes” and “surveys of defects in our social, economic or political system.”
At the same time, McFadden cautioned that “Congress may not expose someone simply ‘for the sake of exposure.’ ”
McFadden accepted the committee’s stated purpose, the need to oversee the presidential tax-return auditing system. “The Request suggests that President Trump’s public criticisms of the IRS threatened the integrity of any audit of his tax returns during his presidency,” McFadden noted. And he accepted the committee’s professed need to examine the records of a president who “controls hundreds of businesses and typically files ‘inordinately large and complex’ tax returns.” This was a weak reed, to be sure, but McFadden’s ruling in favor of the committee was upheld on appeal.
The question now is whether the committee should release the returns. It would do better to heed McFadden’s warning: “If Chairman Neal’s true interest in the former president’s tax returns is indeed to better understand the Presidential Audit Program, he will doubtless be able to accomplish this objective without publishing the returns.” He added, “Anyone can see that publishing confidential tax information of a political rival is the type of move that will return to plague the inventor.”
Democrats’ purpose to evaluate the IRS might have been valid at one point, but Trump did, in fact, run out the clock. If Democrats wanted to enact legislation obligating presidents or presidential nominees to release their tax returns, they should have done so. They failed. It’s also inexplicable that Congress passed no legislation to implement the emoluments clause. Democrats missed their opportunity to prevent financial corruption.
Releasing Trump’s tax returns now has all the appearance of petty payback. I’m hard-pressed to think of any legislative proposal that might come from the returns, let alone from their public release. It’s not clear that Neal and the committee can think of one, either. Will they propose legislation in the waning days of this session?
With substantial and varied investigations underway into Trump’s finances (in New York), as well as his Jan. 6 activity and document-snatching, Neal’s publicizing his tax returns might appear to the average American like piling on. Law enforcement personnel already have Trump’s tax returns and will use them at trial should Trump be indicted. Why distract from legitimate and weighty inquiries with a politically driven effort perceived as an attempt to embarrass him?
Democrats would be wise to exercise self-restraint (a rare political virtue these days), if for no other reason than to avoid giving Trump grounds for martyrdom. The last thing our political system needs at the moment is another gratuitous partisan act.
Certainly, if the roles were reversed, Republicans would exercise no such self-control. But that’s beside the point. At least one party’s reputation as a responsible guardian of power should be worth preserving. Above all, Democrats should avoid giving fodder to the MAGA crowd’s whining about another anti-Trump “witch hunt.” Neal should not distract from the legal matters already afflicting Trump.