Republican efforts to help keep Donald Trump’s tax returns hidden from the public have evolved over time. In the last Congress, for example, when Democrats would try to advance efforts to force disclosure of the secret presidential materials, GOP lawmakers would simply dismiss the appeals out of hand.
In the wake of the 2018 midterms, as Democrats begin to slowly lay the foundation for disclosure, Republicans argued that presidents are already “subject to a background check by the Federal Bureau of Investigations [sic],” so examining presidential tax returns is unnecessary. As best as I can tell, presidents and presidential candidates are not the subjects of FBI background checks.
This week, Trump’s GOP allies have taken a more aggressive posture on the issue. From a Washington Examiner piece published this week:
[A] choice by the Ways & Means committee to force the release of the president’s returns could have serious consequences. For one, it will set a precedent for the House majority, in this case the Democrats, to go after the tax returns of individuals. It is not hard to imagine that coming around to bite Democrats in the future.
“Once you go down this road, it’s a lot like using the intelligence agencies to look into political campaigns,” Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California, ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, said last month. “Once you go down the road, there’s no turning back, because then it ratchets up. Because at some point, Republicans will be back in power. There are lots of people we could have subpoenaed their tax returns the last few years that would be very interesting.”
It is not hard to foresee the tax return fight setting off an ugly escalation of partisan warfare on the Hill.
Some of the initial reactions to this from Trump critics was indifference: Democratic presidents and presidential candidates already release their tax returns. If Republicans want to play a “what’s good for the goose…” game, so be it. Dems wouldn’t care since those efforts wouldn’t change anything.
But I don’t think that’s what Nunes meant. His quote suggested he envisions a very different dynamic: if Democrats hold Trump to the same standard as other modern presidents, Republicans may very well start holding all kinds of people to presidential standards.
The implicit threat, in other words, is that Democratic use of existing law to obtain Trump’s tax returns could prompt Republicans to consider going much further, possibly targeting, to use Devin Nunes’ phrase, “lots of people.”
I suppose the idea here is to intimidate Democrats into retreat?
What we have not yet heard from the White House or any of the congressional Republicans who are eager to carry the president’s water is why it’s so important to keep Trump’s tax returns hidden from public view.
As Jon Chait concluded this morning, “[N]one of Trump’s defenders have bothered to construct a motive for Trump’s decision to conceal his tax returns. It’s just something we must all accept. The president has done business with, and employed, a large number of criminals, is under state and federal investigation for a wide array of alleged crimes, but his decision to keep his financial information private apparently tells us nothing whatsoever about the secrets it may contain.”
Republicans have had more than three years to come up with a good argument to defend Trump’s norm-defying secrecy. Evidently, they haven’t come up with anything.