(Nicholas Kamm /AFP)
Opinion writer

President Trump’s absurd claim that a four-page summary of the Russia investigation’s findings grants him “total exoneration,” and his efforts to bully Democrats and the media into groveling for forgiveness for supposedly having gotten this scandal wrong, are all about what lies ahead. The obvious game is to chill further scrutiny — which very much constitutes a live threat to Trump that no amount of furious tweeting about “exoneration” can make disappear.

Which is why Democrats should, if anything, be intensifying their effort to access Trump’s tax returns right now, not dragging their feet on it.

The Center for American Progress is trying to increase the pressure on Democrats to do just that — by releasing a new memo which argues that getting the returns is a legal slam dunk, and is absolutely justifiable, or even imperative, as a matter of basic oversight and good governance.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has delegated the job of getting at Trump’s tax returns to Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. Under the law, the committee can request any individual’s tax returns, after which the Treasury Department “shall” furnish them.

Neal has asked multiple House committees to each furnish a rationale rooted in governing or oversight for getting the president’s returns, with the theory being that it would place the request on firmer institutional footing and make the legal case stronger. The Trump administration will challenge the request, likely leading to a lengthy court battle.

Now, HuffPost reports reports that Neal is saying this whole process could end up meaning we don’t see Trump’s returns until after the 2020 election. Neal is claiming he has little control over this — “I can’t substitute my timetable for the federal courts,” he says — but this does not say anything about why he is not acting with more urgency.

Enter the Center for American Progress memo, which argues at length that the law is unambiguously clear. “If Congress asks for any tax returns, the [Internal Revenue Service] must provide them,” the memo says.

The idea is that, while it may be understandable for Democrats to want to build a strong institutional and legal case, this cannot become an excuse for further delay. Notably, the memo points out that while there is no precedent for seeking a president’s tax returns under this particular provision of the law, it’s because, for decades, presidents and presidential candidates voluntarily released them.

That is, until Trump blithely shredded this most basic norm of transparency — meaning that his own unprecedented contempt for this norm is what necessitates the House taking this aggressive step in response.

Along those lines, the memo further argues that doing this would represent a thoroughly legitimate and reasonable exercise of Congress’s oversight function. Among the reasons:

  • To determine whether Trump’s foreign financial dealings create conflicts of interest, or worse, whether he’s compromised by them in some way. We still do not know whether special counsel Robert S. Mueller III defined his investigation to avoid looking at Trump’s finances. Whether he did, the memo argues, Congress has its own obligation to scrutinize these questions.
  • To determine whether Trump is violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause by receiving payments from foreign governments without Congress’s consent. The memo argues that the fact the clause allows for Congress to consent to certain emoluments — or not to — itself requires getting the returns, so it can exercise its responsibility to determine whether any particular emoluments either are, or are not, deserving of congressional consent.
  • To determine whether — or to what extent — Trump and his family have profited from the huge tax-cut legislation he signed, which could be substantial. The memo argues that this information could help Congress determine whether to go along with whatever future tax policies Trump proposes, such as making certain provisions in the new tax law permanent.

Here’s the thing. The urgency of all these matters should not in any way be seen as diminished by the conclusion of the Mueller investigation. That’s because, even if no criminal charges were brought for conspiracy with Russia, the Mueller inquiry and its spinoffs have nonetheless added substantially to the broader case against Trump’s corruption.

This is a case that will continue to build, as the multiple other investigations resulting from Mueller’s work, as well as those launched by House Democrats, proceed. As Bloomberg’s Timothy L. O’Brien, who understands the depths of Trump financial murk like no one else, puts it, “reality is likely to keep intruding on everybody who has been ushering Trump-Russia coverage into the grave.”

After all, because of those investigations, we have learned that Trump carried on negotiations with Russia over a Moscow project for many months while Republican voters were picking their nominee; that he has been directly implicated in a criminal campaign finance scheme; and that Trump concealed both these things from the public. Getting Trump’s tax returns could help shed light on whether there are other such foreign dealings, and on his tax treatment of the hush-money payments, among other things.

We have also learned from Trump’s own former lawyer that he may have gamed assets for insurance- and tax-fraud purposes, and that Trump’s tax returns could contain clues to those things — not to mention clues to the extensive history of tax fraud used to inflate his inherited fortune, something we learned about from that big New York Times exposé.

Rather than getting drawn into a sad-sack debate over whether Democrats should “move on” from the Mueller investigation, it’s more natural to just keep the focus on Trump’s corruption, as a matter of basic oversight. The political ground for maintaining that focus is actually more fertile right now, because of everything we’ve learned — and continue to learn — as a result of the Mueller investigation. And getting Trump’s tax returns is central to that basic mission.

Read more:

Harry Litman: A ‘road map’ for the coming fight over the Mueller report

Kathleen Parker: The new litmus tests for future presidents could backfire against Democrats

Dana Milbank: Trump should come with a warning label

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