To say that Donald Trump was a corrupt president is to state the obvious: He abused his power and obstructed justice; he pressured his staff to serve his interests over the nation’s; he received money, albeit indirectly, from foreign governments; he funnelled taxpayer money into his businesses; and he tried his best to subvert democracy to hold onto power. And that’s just scratching the surface.
But while there are many accounts of his corruption, lawmakers and the public are far from knowing all the details — and thus, all the holes in our anticorruption laws that may need to be fixed. And it’s not just the presidency: the conflict-of-interest rules governing other high-ranking officials need a refresh based on the lessons we ought to be able to learn from the Trump era. But despite enormous public pressure and congressional subpoenas, the former president has so far succeeded in mostly shielding at least one key aspect of his life from public view: his tax returns.
That may soon change. The Department of Justice already has urged the Internal Revenue Service to hand over Trump’s tax returns to Congress, and though a federal judge will first hear arguments for why the former president can block the IRS from releasing the documents, it’s likely that Congress will eventually get them anyway. Even if that judge rules in Trump’s favor, another judge from a separate case has ruled that Congress could subpoena the former president’s accounting firm for tax documents.
These delay tactics are unfortunate, but no matter how long it takes, Congress — acting in its role as a check on the executive branch — should not lose sight of the very real need to see a fuller accounting of Trump’s tax returns. The Trump presidency was a profoundly dangerous stress test on American democracy, and as a result, Congress must respond with key reforms to limit a president’s ability to abuse their power and to better hold the executive branch accountable in real time. In order to do that effectively, lawmakers must know the extent to which Trump abused his power while he was in office to benefit himself financially.
His tax returns are a great place to start. “Now’s the time for Congress to fix things to avoid some of the problems that happened when Donald Trump was president,” said Noah Bookbinder, the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “So getting that kind of information that’s going to tell you what conflicts of interests there may have been, what constitutional violations there may have been ... is going to be really important.” By looking more closely at his tax documents and seeing exactly how Trump may have violated the law, Congress can better decide, for example, how to more effectively enforce the emoluments clauses in the Constitution, which ban presidents from receiving gifts from foreign and domestic governments.
Another reason for lawmakers to look at Trump’s tax returns is because while the IRS is already tasked with automatically auditing presidents and vice presidents, the process is, unsurprisingly, extremely opaque. If something unsavory is uncovered when Trump’s documents are exposed then Congress ought to ask, and investigate, whether the IRS fulfilled its duty in auditing the former president, and whether it’s doing so for the current president for that matter.
The long-running chase after Trump’s tax returns is ultimately why Congress should require future presidents to release their tax returns rather than relying on norms that can be easily broken. It’s one of the ways Congress can improve its oversight over the executive branch in real time. It’s also just one of the many reasons Congress should finally pass the For the People Act, which would, in addition to protecting voting rights, require presidents to release their tax returns.
On their own, tax returns are not a magic bullet; that’s why this editorial board has argued that while increasing transparency is crucial, it must be coupled with other safeguards like requiring presidents to divest from their businesses. Nor is the presidency the only office that needs tighter safeguards. Since the start of the pandemic, it has become clearer than ever, for example, that members of Congress and their spouses ought to be banned from buying, selling, or even owning individual stocks. After all, the conflict of interest is clear: How can the public trust that their elected officials will act in the national interest when lawmakers can write laws that could easily manipulate — and boost — their stocks’ value?
These conflicts of interest aren’t limited to any one party. Last year, former Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler, a Republican, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, both raised eyebrows when they or their spouses made alarmingly prescient stock trades that greatly benefited from the pandemic before the severity of the coronavirus was made public. And more recently, it was revealed that Kentucky Senator Rand Paul’s wife bought stock in a company that produces a drug treatment for COVID-19 before the public knew how serious the disease was. Whether the senators knew of the trades themselves or not, the fact of the matter is that even the perception of any wrongdoing will erode public faith in government.
Ultimately, one of Congress’s most critical duties in this precarious moment in American democracy is to clean up the government after the brazen corruption that took place under the Trump administration. To do that, it must impose higher standards on the presidency — and on its own members, too.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.