In a blatant display of partisanship that disregards the wishes of a majority of Americans, House Republicans have rejected an attempt to use their legal power to obtain tax returns for President Trump, who has consistently refused to release them on his own.
Under a rarely invoked federal law, House and Senate tax committees can order the Treasury Department to release individual tax returns. Obviously this is a power that should be used sparingly. But it is the law for a reason. Given Trump’s refusal to put his assets in a blind trust, his apparent and ongoing conflicts of interest, and increasingly serious questions about his ties to the Kremlin, it seems equally obvious that this is one of those instances for which the law was created. The last time a committee used the law for a president, it was to examine the returns of Richard Nixon in 1974. Nixon ultimately was found to have owed nearly $500,000 in taxes. Republicans joined with Democrats in voting to release some of that information.
Sadly, Minnesota Rep. Erik Paulsen was among those voting with the majority on the Ways and Means Committee to shield Trump’s tax returns. We expect more independence from Paulsen than this. When the Editorial Board endorsed him in November over a strong Democratic challenger, it was with the expectation that he would take a stronger leadership role in Congress. This is an instance where leadership is needed.
Paulsen told an editorial writer that if congressional intelligence committees found a need to review Trump’s returns, “We would take action.” That poses something of a Catch-22: Without the returns, the committees might never find the information they need.
Major questions remain about the extent to which Trump has truly distanced himself from his global holdings, and he has not helped matters by turning his exclusive Mar-A-Lago resort into a “winter White House” at taxpayers’ expense, complete with special access and photo ops for dues-paying members.
Trump was wrong when he said that only the media cared about seeing his taxes. Nearly a million Americans have signed petitions seeking his returns. Protesters plan to use Tax Day this year for a march in Washington and 60 other locations across the country to pressure him to release his returns voluntarily. This issue is not going away.
Democrats overreached when they asked for a decade’s worth of returns. But the two sides could have negotiated a more reasonable period, such as two years, and can still do so.
It is understandable that Republicans are reluctant to get behind a Democratic effort to demand Trump’s tax returns. The reality is that their president has put GOP members in an untenable position. The task is made more difficult when it involves a powerful leader who has not been shy about threatening those who cross him.
But Paulsen and the other Republicans who make up the majority on Ways and Means may be the last means that Americans have to fulfill what should have been a routine release but now takes on outsized importance, both for ethical and national security reasons.
We urge House and Senate members to be mindful that their greater duty is to their constituents and their country. If Trump will not do the right thing, the legislative branch must compel him, because it has that power and obligation.