The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In another country, we would call this ‘corruption’

Deputy editorial page editor and columnist Ruth Marcus counts the reasons why she thinks the GOP tax bill is awful. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

The tax reform plan that just passed the House of Representatives will soon be signed into law by Donald Trump. But it will not personally benefit Donald Trump. Or so claims Donald Trump.

It would leave him “a big loser,” Donald Trump said last month. “This is going to cost me a fortune, this thing, believe me,” he said more recently. “This is not good for me.”

The White House is echoing this line. Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Tuesday that while Trump might benefit “on the business side,” she added that “on the personal side the president will likely take a big hit.”

And yet, when pressed on whether he will release his tax returns so that we can verify this, Sanders once again said that Trump will not, because, she claimed, he remains under audit. “His taxes are under audit, so he’s not going to release those taxes,” she said.

It’s hard to overemphasize what a sign this is of the incipient and continued corruption of politics in the United States.

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Almost no one, whether an expert in tax law or just a random member of the voting public, believes Trump, a man who lies so often that esteemed presidential historian Bob Dallek called it “pathological,” is telling the truth about what he can expect from the tax reform. As Glenn Kessler recently demonstrated, it could potentially cut his tax bills by tens of millions of dollars.

Americans know this, and would like him to release his returns to verify it. A CNN poll released Tuesday found that a majority — 63 percent of those surveyed — believe the bill would enrich the Trump family. Almost three-quarters — 73 percent — agreed Trump should release his taxes for “public review.”

Congressional Republicans on Dec. 20 passed a massive tax overhaul, sending the bill to President Trump for him to sign it into law. (Video: Jenny Starrs, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Until Trump came along, every president since Richard Nixon has released his taxes so that voters (and others) could review them. It has become a norm over the years. Beyond providing basic transparency, this has also showed that the system works, that our president — or the people who would be president — are not taking advantage of their position to enrich themselves at the expense of the public.

But Trump broke with precedent during the campaign, repeatedly claiming that he was under audit. As noted above, Sanders reiterated this excuse yesterday.

It’s hooey. There is no rule banning anyone from releasing his tax returns while under audit. IRS rules require the president’s and the vice president’s tax returns to undergo “mandatory examinations,” which is a fancy word for audit. In other words, the chances that Trump, given the likely complexity of his tax returns, won’t be under audit at any point while president, are not high.

But the rot goes deeper than Trump. Republicans in Congress could probably get a gander at Trump’s tax returns if they so wanted, and could at least try to force Trump to show more transparency on them for the good of the public.

As CNN’s Jeanne Sahadi reported earlier this year, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, or the Senate Finance Committee, or the Joint Committee on Taxation can request to confidentially see the president — or for that matter, anyone’s — tax returns. That means Rep. Kevin Brady or Sen. Orrin Hatch could check into this for all of us. They could then share the results with their committee in a closed session. Or congressional Republicans could vote to release the returns to the full House or Senate, which would basically be another way to make the returns public.

“I can’t come up with any good faith reason they wouldn’t want to do this,” Susan Hennessey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and editor of the Lawfare blog, told me in an interview today after I reached out to her because she tweeted on the topic. “If there is nothing there, it would really be a favor to the White House because they could speak with credibility on the issue and really validate White House talking points.”

Instead, we are left with the sense that congressional Republicans so wanted this unpopular tax reform legislation to pass, they didn’t want to look under the hood of Trump’s tax returns and find out how he and his family benefit. Based on everything we know about Trump’s business interests and the tax bill, it almost certainly would have made the task of passing this bill politically much harder — if not impossible.

If this occurred in almost any other country, we would almost certainly call it legalized corruption. Instead, it’s just another day in Trump’s United States.