One big question facing the incoming House Democratic majority will be how aggressively to pursue President Trump’s tax returns, and Nancy Pelosi, who is likely to be the next House speaker, told reporters on Thursday that decisions about how to proceed will be left to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Pelosi said getting Trump’s returns may prove “a little more challenging than you might think,” adding: “I’m sure the White House will resist, so the question is, 'Where do we go from there?’ ”
Here’s something that I expect to happen, something that will become an important part of this story: Democrats will likely tie the quest for Trump’s returns to a much broader argument about corruption and the need to clean up government. That is, Democrats will seek Trump’s returns in the context, to coin a phrase, of a larger effort to drain the swamp -- only for real this time.
Trump and his allies, of course, will claim that Democrats are pursuing his returns only for political reasons. And some of the media coverage of Democratic plans to launch investigations of Trump and his administration, predictably, is already framing those probes as “attacks.” So it will be important to get the broader story here right.
There will soon be the perfect hook for doing this. A senior House Democratic aide involved in the planning of these matters tells me that Democrats plan to begin laying the groundwork to seek Trump’s tax returns when debates start on the big package of pro-democracy reforms that Democrats plan to introduce in January.
That package, known as H.R. 1, includes a number of provisions, such as new disclosure measures against “dark money,” new limits on lobbying, measures to make voting easier, such as national automatic voter registration -- and, crucially, a provision that would require presidential candidates to make their tax returns public.
That last provision will go through Ways and Means -- and it’s here, the Democratic aide tells me, that Democrats can begin making a public case for why such disclosure by presidential candidates is important.
The key point here is that such a debate will -- and should -- be about something much larger than Trump, though it is Trump’s willingness to shred this most basic norm of transparency that has necessitated such a push in the first place. What’s more, approaching Trump’s tax returns this way will also place the need for such transparency in the context of a much broader debate about the need to restore faith in government and root out corruption in numerous other ways.
By the way, it’s true that it isn’t going to be easy to get Trump’s returns. Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the incoming chair of Ways and Means, has said he plans to call on Trump to release them. An obscure century-old legal provision empowers the chairpeople of tax-writing committees to request an individual’s tax returns from the Treasury Department, but it’s all but certain the Trump administration will refuse, sparking a legal battle. Whether or not that is to be successful, Democrats will need to lay the groundwork for the coming political battle over the returns as well.
Absurdly, the public discussion around all of this has already created the false impression that Democrats face a choice between governing, on the one hand, and investigating Trump, on the other, as if those things are necessarily in conflict. Guess what: They aren’t. Serious, legitimate, fact-based oversight of the Trump administration’s governing abuses -- and, yes, Trump’s personal corruption and self-dealing -- is itself an essential aspect of governing, and will be key to restoring faith in government, if Democrats can succeed at doing so.
A strong public case for the release of Trump’s tax returns -- one tied to a broader argument about what genuine swamp drainage looks like -- will be key to getting that right.