Attorney General William P. Barr has been a busy little bee, hopping around the globe to pressure U.S. allies into validating President Trump’s conspiracy theories about the 2016 election while he’s supposed to be acting as the country’s chief law enforcement officer.

But the work of defending Trump never ends, which is why Barr’s Justice Department is going to the mat to make sure the American public never, ever sees Trump’s tax returns.

You may have forgotten about those returns, which are being sought by both Congress and the Manhattan district attorney, in a case involving Trump’s hush money payments to two women who said they had affairs with him.

Now the Justice Department has told the judge in the latter case that it will join Trump’s lawsuit seeking to keep his tax returns secret. Surely there is some vital constitutional issue at play, in which the interests of the United States would be deeply threatened if the public found out where the president gets his money.

While to this nonlawyer’s eye the Justice Department’s claim seems absurd on its face, I can’t say I know how the judge will rule. But Trump is having to fight against the release of his returns on multiple fronts, and he’ll have to win every one of those battles to prevail in his war on disclosure. Should he fail anywhere, the returns will be brought into the light, and they will become one more facet of the encompassing Trump scandal that is leading toward his impeachment.

As in the case of Ukraine, what we see in the tax return scandal is the mobilization of a range of government agencies and resources, including the Treasury Department and the Justice Department, to help ensure that Trump gets reelected.

Here we should pause to remind ourselves that absolutely everyone, Democrat or Republican, agrees that if those tax returns became public, it would be a political cataclysm for the president. If that were not the case, he would not be trying so desperately to keep them hidden.

The only question is whether what they reveal is merely appalling or is actually criminal. Given that we know for a fact that Trump and his family devised and implemented a tax fraud scheme that defrauded the government of hundreds of millions of dollars (though he is protected from prosecution by the statute of limitations) and given what we know about, well, Trump’s entire life, I’d guess it’s the latter. Trump’s own attorneys argue that the revealing of his tax returns would cause him “irreparable harm,” an admission that whatever they contain, it’s very bad news.

So the Manhattan DA’s investigation, which has subpoenaed Trump’s returns from his accounting firm, is one front. There’s another set of subpoenas from the House Financial Services Committee and the Intelligence Committee, which Trump has also sued to quash. Then there’s the House Ways and Means Committee, which has demanded Trump’s returns from the IRS, something they have an unquestionable legal right to do.

Whistleblowers such as Daniel Ellsberg take personal risks to expose wrongdoing. (The Washington Post)

Rep. Neal and the whistleblower

This is where the story takes an unusual turn. When the Ways and Means Committee chair, Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), officially requested Trump’s returns, the administration went into full stonewall, refusing to provide them on the bogus grounds that Congress didn’t have a good enough reason to ask for them. In fact, Congress doesn’t need to supply a reason at all; the statute merely says that the Treasury secretary “shall” furnish them.

Even if that were not true, they have about a hundred perfectly good reasons, including the main one they cited in court documents: Congress’s oversight of the IRS means it needs to determine whether the president’s tax returns are being audited properly. Which brings us to the second Trump administration whistleblower.

Yes, the second whistleblower. As Neal explained in a letter two months ago, his committee “received an unsolicited communication from a Federal employee setting forth credible allegations of ‘evidence of possible misconduct’ — specifically, potential ‘inappropriate efforts to influence’ the mandatory audit program.”

The letter gets no more specific, and Neal has been tight-lipped about it; even the other members of the committee don’t know who the whistleblower is. But it sounds like someone tried to do something inappropriate with the IRS audit of Trump’s tax returns. Now why might they do that?

We all know why: To protect Trump and, in particular, to protect him from political damage that would make it less likely that he’ll win reelection next year.

Neal now says he may release the IRS whistleblower’s complaint publicly, depending on what he’s been told by House lawyers. Nevertheless, Neal hasn’t given much reason to feel confident in his willingness to exercise aggressive oversight. The entire effort to get Trump’s returns has been so sluggish that he now has a primary challenger.

Now that an impeachment inquiry has begun, perhaps Neal will begin to feel that sense of urgency. The tax return issue isn’t a distraction from Ukraine, because they’re both part of the same story. Whether it’s concealing his tax returns or putting the Ukraine call transcript in the secret server, the overarching scandal is all about Trump’s lawlessness and corruption — and the way he’s used the powers of the government to protect himself from accountability.

Read more: