Or was Mr. Mulvaney saying that the executive branch would ignore a judicial ruling ordering disclosure? Mr. Trump last week reportedly told immigration authorities to ignore judicial orders.
Or was Mr. Mulvaney just embarrassingly wrong on the law governing Congress’s power to demand individual tax returns?
As with so many puzzling statements from administration officials, Mr. Mulvaney’s had two interpretations, one sinister and one foolish. The Democrats who have demanded Mr. Trump’s returns anchored their request in an obscure but powerful federal law, which commands that the treasury secretary “shall furnish” congressional committees “with any return or return information” upon request.
William S. Consovoy, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, argued in a Friday letter to the Treasury Department that the Democrats have “no legitimate committee purpose for requesting the President’s tax returns” and that their “request is a transparent effort by one political party to harass an official from the other party because they dislike his politics and speech.”
The Democrats' rationale may or may not be persuasive to Mr. Consovoy, or to other observers who see political motives behind the tax-return request. But the Democratic request clearly falls within the boundaries of permissible congressional action. Given the clarity of the law and Congress's wide legal discretion to conduct investigations, no judge is likely to rule that House Democrats are abusing their powers.
Setting aside the legal question, Mr. Trump has been wrong to conceal his tax information from Congress and the public. Mr. Mulvaney argued Sunday that the president got elected anyway, so the issue is settled. Actually, Mr. Trump won an election in which he repeatedly promised to release his returns. He is well past due to keep his promise.
When they enter the presidential fray, candidates lose the reasonable expectations of privacy that ordinary Americans have. That includes Donald Trump in 2016 and, now, the Democrats vying to replace him. Since the 1970s, presidents have released their tax returns so the public can glimpse how their leaders conduct their private affairs. Given Mr. Trump’s sprawling personal business, public disclosure is all the more important.
Congress should pass a resolution insisting that every president and major-party presidential candidate should disclose their tax returns, both current and going back some appropriate period of time. Doing so would make clear no president can duck the responsibility to be transparent, and it would save the House Ways and Means Committee from relying on an old, obscure law to make the point. This is a norm that deserves to be restored — and made mandatory.