President Trump and Jared Kushner. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

THE MORNING PLUM:

It is easy to lose track of all the ways in which congressional Republicans are enabling President Trump’s ongoing slow-motion erosion of our democracy. They mostly declined to correct Trump’s lie that millions voted illegally, undermining public confidence in our system. They refuse to prod Trump to show transparency about his business holdings, covering the tracks of his untold conflicts of interest. They are resisting an independent congressional inquiry into the Russian campaign to swing the election.

Those last two enabling efforts meet in the refusal of Republicans to prod Trump to release his tax returns, which could shed light on his holdings and on his potential financial dealings with Russia. And the stakes of the GOP refusal to push for those tax returns have now been underscored by a new CNN report that Russians privately claimed to have potentially compromising information that may have come from Trump’s finances:

Russian government officials discussed having potentially “derogatory” information about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and some of his top aides in conversations intercepted by US intelligence during the 2016 election, according to two former intelligence officials and a congressional source.

One source described the information as financial in nature and said the discussion centered on whether the Russians had leverage over Trump’s inner circle. The source said the intercepted communications suggested to US intelligence that Russians believed “they had the ability to influence the administration through the derogatory information.”

To be sure, this report is a bit sketchy. The sources refused to tell CNN which aides were discussed by Russian officials, and they also allowed that this claim of potential leverage over Trump may have been Russian bluster.

But nonetheless, this revelation provides Democrats with an opening — to renew the pressure on congressional Republicans to prod Trump into releasing his tax returns, or to get access to them via other means.

Norm Eisen, the ethics czar under former president Barack Obama, argued to me this morning that the CNN scoop reminds us of the importance of getting access to those tax returns. He also reiterated that Republicans have the power to see these returns if they want to.

President Trump on April 16 issued two tweets in which he criticized protesters who marched the day before to demand that he release his tax returns. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

“Trump’s taxes are an important first piece in the puzzle to determine whether or not he has financial ties to Russia,” Eisen told me. Eisen noted that Trump’s lawyers recently released a letter claiming Trump had only negligible income from (or debt to) Russian sources over the past 10 years. But as tax expert David Cay Johnston quickly pointed out, the letter was “artfully written” to elide an inquiry into what we really “need to know about Trump and Russian money,” which “involves transactions prior to 10 years ago.”

Eisen noted that without seeing the actual returns themselves, these assertions by Trump’s lawyers “are virtually meaningless,” and added that it is now on congressional Republicans to pick up the inquiry. “The tax committees of Congress have the legal right to demand from the IRS, to examine, and to share tax returns if a proper public purpose is met,” Eisen said.

Democrats have also zeroed in on this point. Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, has repeatedly pressed the committee’s GOP chairman, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, to use his authority to secure an opportunity for committee members to privately view Trump’s tax returns. Hatch refused, citing limitations on his own authority to do this that Democrats say is bogus. Republicans have blocked other measures designed to access the tax returns.

The important point here is that broadly speaking, most Republicans are inclined against taking whatever steps are necessary to deepen their own (not to mention the public’s) understanding of the Russia affair. There are other measures Republicans could take to try to force access to the tax returns, either through legislation or simply by issuing more forceful calls on him to release them. Again: All we are talking about here is a baseline standard of transparency, one that Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have held themselves to for decades, because they recognized that the American people have a right to this transparency from their public officials, a right Trump does not recognize — and one congressional Republicans are now shrugging off.

Sergey Kislyak reported to his superiors in December that Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law and adviser, asked him about setting up a communications channel between the transition team and the Kremlin using Russian facilities in the United States. (Alice Li,McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, The Post reported over the weekend that top Trump adviser Jared Kushner sought to set up a secure line of communication between Trump’s transition and the Kremlin. Top Democrats are now calling for a congressional review of whether Kushner should have his security clearance revoked. But there is little indication of interest in this from Republicans, and even more remarkably, this comes even as Republicans are now defending Trump’s explicit undermining of the postwar system of Western alliances during his trip abroad.

While it is perfectly possible that all this could ultimately produce no evidence of serious wrongdoing by Trump and his team, this is also about establishing a full accounting of Russian efforts to sabotage our election, regardless of whether there was any collusion. Republicans are resisting even this. But, fortunately, the drip-drip-drip of revelations, as well as Trump’s own ham-handed efforts at interference, have made it incrementally less tenable for Republicans to hold out against such a full accounting. The increments are tiny, to be sure. But they are not non-existent, and Trump’s increasingly hollow and anguished shouts of “Fake News” will not stop them from continuing.

* KUSHNER MEETING WITH RUSSIAN BANKER IS SCRUTINIZED: The New York Times reports that federal investigators are focusing on a meeting Jared Kushner held with a Russian banker close to Vladimir Putin in December:

The current and former American officials now say it may have been part of an effort by Mr. Kushner to establish a direct line to Mr. Putin outside established diplomatic channels. The meeting came as Mr. Trump was openly feuding with American intelligence agencies and their conclusion that Russia had tried to disrupt the presidential election and turn it in his favor.

As the Times notes, at the time, Trump transition officials appeared determined to avoid using official communications channels, out of worry that Obama officials might be tracking the calls.

* RUSSIANS DISCUSSED ‘DEROGATORY’ INFORMATION ABOUT TRUMP: CNN reports that U.S. intelligence intercepted calls during the campaign in which Russian officials discussed potentially derogatory information they had on Trump and his top aides:

One source described the information as financial in nature and said the discussion centered on whether the Russians had leverage over Trump’s inner circle. The source said the intercepted communications suggested to US intelligence that Russians believed “they had the ability to influence the administration through the derogatory information.”

CNN cautions that it could not identify the aides and that this could have been Russian bluster, but the notion that Russia hoped to “influence the administration” is suggestive.

* TRUMP ROLLS BACK PROGRAMS THAT FIGHT DISCRIMINATION: The Post reports that the Trump administration is reversing policies that fought discrimination via the Labor Department, Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and more. A summary:

The Trump administration is reducing the role of the federal government in fighting discrimination and protecting minorities by cutting budgets, dissolving programs and appointing officials unsympathetic to previous practices. … The efforts … [reflect] the consensus view within the Trump administration that Obama officials exceeded their authority in policing discrimination on the state and local level.

Add on top of that Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s rollback of the Justice Department’s involvement in probing police abuses and fighting voting rights, and you see where this is going.

* GOP CANDIDATES GRAPPLE WITH TRUMP PROBLEM: Jeremy Peters reports that GOP candidates are avoiding openly embracing Trump while not openly rebuffing him, alienating his voters. Among them: Karen Handel, the GOP candidate in the Georgia House special election:

She welcomed the president for a fund-raiser last month, but kept it closed to the public. She batted away reports that Mr. Trump had shared highly classified information with the Russians by saying they could just be a “gross assumption” by the media, a view many in the district share. But she added that she supported an investigation to resolve the matter. And when the White House sends in reinforcements to campaign with Ms. Handel ahead of Election Day on June 20, Vice President Mike Pence will be the headliner, not Mr. Trump.

This could be a signal that Republicans will struggle in suburban districts with lots of college-educated voters who dislike Trump, but remember: This district went for Tom Price by 23 points.

* GOP SENATORS BALK AT MEDICAID CUTS: The Associated Press reports that some GOP senators, such as Rob Portman, Dean Heller and Shelley Moore Capito, are worried about the GOP health bill’s enormous cuts to Medicaid:

These senators are seeking a compromise that would phase out the extra federal expansion money for several additional years. They also want the overall program to grow yearly by a formula that’s more generous than the House would allow, and protect Medicaid money states use to combat the growing problem of opioid abuse. They would also increase federal payments to state pools for assisting low-earning residents and federal tax credits that subsidize poorer people buying their own coverage.

“Several additional years” — wow! Something tells us these senators will get on board if they are given something that allows them to claim they softened the cuts even a little bit.

* GET READY FOR A DEBT LIMIT FIGHT: Politico reports that the Trump administration is warning that a debt-limit hike will be needed sooner rather than later, and this is catching Congress totally flat-footed:

The GOP is torn over whether to combine spending cuts with the debt ceiling lift, and Senate Democrats are already signaling they may push for their own concessions since their votes are going to be needed to avoid a devastating government default. The request will also scramble the congressional calendar. The GOP is currently embroiled in an effort to repeal Obamacare and rewrite the tax code, two massive legislative items that are expected to suck up time and energy all summer.

Judging by how swimmingly the Obamacare repeal and tax reform efforts are going, avoiding a catastrophic default should be easy.

* THE QUOTE OF THE DAY, CULT-OF-TRUMP EDITION: Ashley Parker reports that people who work for Trump have to endure all manner of snubs, belittling, and public humiliation, which may be sapping morale. To which White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks responds:

“President Trump has a magnetic personality and exudes positive energy, which is infectious to those around him. He has an unparalleled ability to communicate with people, whether he is speaking to a room of three or an arena of 30,000. He has built great relationships throughout his life and treats everyone with respect. He is brilliant with a great sense of humor … and an amazing ability to make people feel special and aspire to be more than even they thought possible.”

Stockholm syndrome alert!

* THE TRUMP TWEET OF THE WEEKEND: I continue to think this Trump tweet deserves more attention:

“Add more dollars to Healthcare”? Does Trump have any idea what’s in the GOP health bill he’s championing, which would hurt millions of people and impact one-sixth of the U.S. economy? Any idea at all?