CNN has new details on the thinking of administration officials here: They say release will hamper the restoration of normalcy by re-litigating past battles.
This won’t do. Helping conceal Trump’s misdeeds from public view will not restore normalcy. The opposite is true: Lack of transparency will help prevent a restoration of normalcy. That is, it will help prevent a restoration of normalcy we should actually value.
Two sets of documents are at issue here. First, the Justice Department is under pressure to release a legal memo detailing Attorney General William P. Barr’s “rationale” for not charging Trump, after the special counsel examining the Russia scandal documented that Trump likely committed extensive criminal obstruction of justice.
Second, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) has been suing for the release of Trump’s tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service. All this came after Trump unprecedentedly refused to release them himself and his Treasury Department followed suit.
In both cases, the Biden administration is resisting. The group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is suing to get the Justice Department memo, and after a federal judge ordered its release, the department indicated it would appeal.
Meanwhile, the IRS still won’t release Trump’s tax returns. Neal recently told CNN he’s still pursuing them, and negotiations with the administration are ongoing over a possible deal.
But sources close to Neal worry this could linger on forever. And the bottom line is that the Justice Department — which is defending the administration in the tax returns case — hasn’t changed positions from the one under Trump.
Here’s how Justice Department officials justify their reluctance:
Justice officials tell CNN the department's leaders have tried to cast the current administration as restoring normalcy after four years of Trump interfering in the nation's top law enforcement agency.Part of that effort, the officials say, is refraining from using the department to relitigate controversies from the previous administration.
But it would be a crowning perversity if this fact were then used as justification to prevent the full truth from coming out about those very same misdeeds.
Yet the idea that we can’t “re-litigate” these “controversies” means precisely this: Because we supposedly shouldn’t revisit those matters, we cannot learn the full extent to which the government under Trump was perverted by his loyalists to facilitate and cover up his corruption.
The legal memo on obstruction could very well reveal that the Justice Department developed an obviously fraudulent legal analysis to justify not charging Trump. More broadly, as Joyce White Vance details, Trump’s level of presidential interference in the machinery of justice undermines the rule of law in a very profound way. Concealing one of its most heinous episodes is unthinkable.
With the tax returns, the Trump administration violated the law, which requires the Treasury Department to furnish them upon Congress’s request. Democrats don’t need a rationale, but they offered one anyway: They need the returns to exercise oversight over whether the IRS enforced the law impartially over a president, and to determine the full extent of Trump’s financial conflicts of interest as they weigh legislative action to safeguard against future presidential abuses.
To be fair, there are genuine complications here. There are reasons the department would want to protect confidentiality on charging deliberations and why it might want to protect the executive branch’s prerogatives.
You can also see why officials might think they can best demonstrate impartial conduct at agencies by avoiding the appearance of fighting past political battles. But in the end, our interest in fully understanding the uniqueness of this situation carries more weight.
“I understand the instincts pushing the administration in this direction,” Noah Bookbinder, the president of CREW, told me. “They want to model independent agencies that aren’t being used for political purposes and aren’t targeting enemies. They feel like that can restore some faith.”
But, Bookbinder noted, the Trump era brought us “a fundamental corrupting of the federal government for the benefit and advancement of a president.”
“If you don’t find out what happened and get some accountability, you’re not going to deter that kind of thing from happening again,” Bookbinder said.
The burial of Trump’s misdeeds is not behind us. Large swaths of the GOP just killed a full accounting into Trump’s incitement of a mob to subvert our democracy through intimidation and violence.
“The effort to cover for Trump and avoid accountability is ongoing,” Bookbinder told me. “We can’t have normalcy without establishing what happened — and consequences for it.”
There is no way to restore the sort of normalcy we should value other than to have the fullest accounting possible across the board. Normalcy without transparency and accountability is not worthy of the name.