It became obvious long ago that Trump is terrified of what will happen if those returns become public. Some have speculated that he is worried that they will reveal his wealth to be more modest than he claims, which certainly might be the case.
But it’s much more likely that the returns will point the way toward conflicts of interest, associations with questionable characters both foreign and domestic, and perhaps even criminal activity.
Which is why the administration and Trump’s allies will now be mobilized with a most urgent task: Obstruct at all costs the effort to obtain Trump’s returns, and justify that obstruction in the media.
There is simply no legal question about whether Congress has the right to obtain the returns. The law is unambiguous that it can demand them, and the request is highly pertinent to multiple areas of congressional oversight. But the Trump administration strategy is already clear. It will refuse to comply with the law:
Privately, Trump has told White House advisers that he does not plan to hand over his tax returns to Congress — and that he would fight the issue to the Supreme Court, hoping to stall it until after the 2020 election, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the conversations. Treasury officials will not comply with the request until they are compelled to do so, the officials said.
Trump himself doesn’t have to hand over anything; the demand is made directly to the IRS, which, under the law, has no choice but to produce the returns. But Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin will apparently instruct the IRS to refuse, under the legal doctrine known as “The law doesn’t apply to Donald Trump.”
The House of Representatives will then sue to compel the IRS to comply with the law, and the IRS will lose in court, until the case reaches the Supreme Court. In any sane world Trump would lose there on a 9-to-0 decision, but there’s no way to tell how the conservative justices will rule.
But even if that whole process is sped up and the public sees the returns relatively soon, we must understand that it will be the beginning of an investigation that could take some time. Trump constructed his business and his income streams in ways almost designed to make them as opaque as possible. The Trump Organization is essentially an amalgam of 500 separate companies, many of which might cover only a single project or partnership and have a name that tells you nothing about what they are.
If, say, there’s an entry in Trump’s returns saying that he made $5 million from Nothing To See Here Partners LLC, it will take some digging to find out whether that’s a domestic project where he slapped his name on something or a case where he got in bed with shady overseas characters that are a concern for American foreign policy. Now multiply that by hundreds of times. Congressional investigators will do that work, as will journalists, and there may even be some crowdsourcing necessary to track it all down. Trump’s returns are an intricate puzzle, both wide and deep, and assembling it to form a coherent whole will be an enormous task.
Here are some of the questions that need to be answered:
- How much income has Trump received, and how much is he still receiving, from overseas investments that could color his decision-making on foreign policy?
- Who are his business partners, and are any of them the kind of people the president of the United States should not be associated with?
- How much did Trump personally benefit from the 2017 tax cut Republicans passed? That bill contained a 20 percent tax deduction for “pass-through” entities; those 500 separate companies Trump owns are nearly all pass-throughs, meaning the bill could have been worth tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars for him, despite the fact that he repeatedly lied and said the tax cut would cost him money.
- Former Trump fixer Michael Cohen testified to Congress that Trump lied to banks and insurance companies to obtain loans and insurance claims. Do his returns corroborate those allegations?
- Has the president committed tax fraud recently? We know from the stunning New York Times investigation published in October, which was based on extensive documentary evidence, that in transferring his father’s wealth during the 1980s and 1990s, Trump and his family engaged in a massive tax-fraud scheme worth hundreds of millions of dollars; he is protected from prosecution for what clearly appear to be a long list of crimes only because the statute of limitations has passed. What has he done since then?
It’s going to take a good deal of time and resources to answer those questions and many others. We should have been able to answer them in 2016 when Trump ran for president, but his campaign of concealment may finally be coming to an end. It’s long overdue.