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Opinion The case for getting Trump’s tax returns just got stronger — and more urgent

Democrats tried 17 different times to obtain President Trump’s tax returns over the past two years. Now they may finally get them. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
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President Trump’s longtime lawyer, personal fixer and keeper of his darkest financial secrets has now told the world that Trump’s tax returns may contain evidence of additional crimes. These are crimes, to be clear, that may have been committed by the man who now sits in the Oval Office.

Which means the need to access Trump’s returns has now grown more pressing. Indeed, House Democrats have an obligation to get them, as quickly as they can.

As the political world digests the testimony offered by Michael Cohen at Wednesday’s House Oversight Committee hearing, one big takeaway is that numerous new investigative channels, including potential criminal ones, have been opened up on the president.

We have now learned from Cohen that getting Trump’s tax returns could be more illuminating than previously thought.

Reflecting on Cohen’s testimony about Trump’s possible participation in a criminal hush-money scheme, the top Oversight Committee Democrat says it now “appears” Trump committed a crime while in office. Cohen flatly informed us all that getting those returns could shed more light on that potential crime but also on Trump’s long history of tax fraud and other possible instances of financial fraud, as well.

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Two House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee — which has the authority to secure the release of Trump’s tax returns — have now gone public with their demand that Rep. Richard E. Neal (Mass.), the committee chair, hurry up and do so. Rep. Jimmy Gomez (Calif.) says “it’s time.”

And Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (N.J.), a senior lawmaker who also sits on the committee, has had it. “There’s no reason to delay anymore,” he told the Huffington Post. “In fact, there’s every reason to act now.”

The view of top Democrats is that Democratic lawmakers are in the process of acting. They believe they must build a strong legal and legislative case to get them, so that the quest for them withstands court challenges.

Still, the legal case for obtaining them already appears strong. A century-old provision in law empowers tax-writing committees — such as Ways and Means — to demand any individual’s tax returns from the Treasury Department, which “shall” furnish them.

What’s more, this isn’t a difficult request to make. As Pascrell puts it, “all it takes is writing a letter.”

The view from inside

The administration is certain to fight this in court. The view from inside is that, if multiple House committees all furnish a rationale for needing to see the returns, it will make success more likely.

Multiple committees are examining their own rationales, according to a knowledgeable source. The need to learn more about Trump’s finances breaks down into different committee areas, such as his financial dealings abroad, his emoluments clause violations and his potential tax evasion. The idea is that a strong case from numerous committees would place the House’s action on strong institutional footing and is necessary simply because the stakes of succeeding are so high.

The problem is there has been no indication of when this point will be reached. Neal has said this “will happen,” but he has refused to give a time frame. In one sense, this is understandable, to avoid telegraphing strategy. But it’s also frustrating, because it’s been difficult to suss out where the process is or whether there are other motives behind the delay.

Neal has said he wants to act “methodically,” which is also understandable, but he subsequently declared that he wants to wait until special counsel Robert S. Mueller III finishes his investigation, and no one knows when that will happen.

What’s more, activists such as Jeff Hauser who have been pressuring Democrats to act fast have pointed out that the court battle could drag on for months or years as it is. And they note that the legal case already appears strong.

The rationale just got stronger

Indeed, if the problem is that Democrats want a solid rationale for seeking the returns, the oversight rationale is now a lot stronger than it was only 24 hours ago. Consider some of the key revelations from Cohen’s testimony:

  • Cohen divulged Trump’s real reason for not releasing his tax returns: He doesn’t want them scrutinized. Trump didn’t want “tax experts” to start “ripping” through them, Cohen said, because this could result in an “audit,” leading to “consequences” and “penalties.”
  • Cohen stated that Trump’s tax returns may contain evidence of additional financial fraud. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) got Cohen to explain Trump’s history of inflating the value of assets for insurance purposes and deflating them to reduce his tax burden. In both cases, Cohen said Trump’s tax returns would be illuminating.
  • Cohen suggested that Trump’s returns could illuminate his tax fraud. Ocasio-Cortez asked Cohen about a New York Times report that detailed his extensive “dubious tax schemes,” as well as his “strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns,” thus vastly inflating his inherited fortune. Cohen said getting Trump’s tax returns would illuminate all this, too.
  • Cohen produced new evidence that Trump reimbursed him for multiple illegal hush-money payments. As Rep. Pascrell points out, this boosts the need to see the returns: “If Trump wrote these payments off as a business expense, that would constitute fraud and his returns would show that.”

A criminal in the Oval Office?

Basically, it appears likely that a criminal now sits in the Oval Office. After the hearing, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the committee chair, was asked whether he believes Trump committed a crime while in office.

Cummings pointed to the checks that show Trump reimbursing hush-money payments, which could constitute participation in a criminal scheme, one that, according to Cohen, Trump’s chief financial officer witnessed first-hand. Cummings replied: “It appears so.”

If so, then the case for getting Trump’s tax returns just got a lot stronger — and a lot more urgent.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: The most revealing insight of Michael Cohen’s testimony

E.J. Dionne: Michael Cohen just breached Trump’s GOP stone wall

Max Boot: Here are five felonies Trump committed — if Cohen is telling the truth

Michael Gerson: The GOP performance at the Cohen hearing was a study in moral corruption

Marc Thiessen: Michael Cohen was supposed to provide ‘bombshell’ testimony. It didn’t explode.