Throughout his business and political careers, Donald Trump has made a habit of stretching the truth. But it rarely caught up with the former president: He’s paid people to keep their mouths shut; he’s had a proclivity to settle the more embarrassing lawsuits brought against him in order to avoid his dirty laundry from being aired out in a courtroom; and he has time and again sued to keep his financial documents private.
That cloud of secrecy, however, is beginning to dissipate. On Tuesday, a jury found the Trump Organization guilty on 17 counts of tax fraud and falsifying business records. It was an unsurprising verdict, but it was significant nonetheless because it confirms what people have long suspected: The business experience that Trump so often brags about includes running a company that actively committed financial crimes under his watch.
Perhaps more concerning for Trump is that the House Ways and Means Committee, under the leadership of Representative Richard Neal of Massachusetts, has obtained one of the former president’s most closely held financial secrets: his tax returns, including both his personal records and those of several of his corporate entities. That means that the public is one step closer to getting the transparency it has come to expect from presidents — that is, the norm of disclosing tax returns that every president other than Trump has abided by since Richard Nixon. And with the Trump Organization’s guilty verdict and Trump officially declaring himself a candidate for president again, the public interest in seeing those returns is as real as ever.
But just because the House Ways and Means Committee has gotten its hands on Trump’s tax returns, that doesn’t mean that they ought to be made public right away. The whole reason the courts allowed Congress to get the former president’s financial records in the first place was because lawmakers argued that they needed them to exercise their duty of oversight and that they weren’t simply seeking them for their own sake. In this case, the committee wanted to review the Internal Revenue Service’s routine audits of presidents and vice presidents. Simply making the tax returns public would make that congressional review seem like it was merely a guise to get those documents — as Trump claimed all along. That’s why Congress should use the records to conduct a bona fide investigation to ensure that the IRS did not treat Trump any differently than it would have any other multimillionaire (which isn’t necessary saying much, since the agency’s rate of auditing wealthy taxpayers has plummeted lately).
With an incoming Republican majority in the House, however, it’s highly unlikely that the House Ways and Means Committee, under new leadership, will continue that review, even though they should. After all, Republicans made a big fuss about how increasing IRS funding means that tax agents will have more resources to target poor and middle-class taxpayers. Shouldn’t they be interested in seeing whether the agency fairly enforces the tax code on the rich and powerful?
Republicans, though, have not shown that they have any interest in ever putting the former president’s transgressions in the spotlight. And so while it’s a tight time frame before Republicans take control of the chamber — about four weeks from now — Neal must be sure to investigate the IRS’s presidential audit program as thoroughly as possible. That would allow his committee to give the public a summary of their findings, and it would show that Democrats meant what they said when he requested Trump’s tax returns.
That said, it’s unlikely that any investigation of the presidential audit program could be done that expeditiously given all of the other items on Congress’s agenda during this transition period. And so if the House Ways and Means Committee is unable to do a comprehensive review over the next few weeks — in part because Neal, while admirably meticulous and persistent in his endeavor to get Trump’s tax returns, drew out the process longer than necessary — the matter should be transferred over to the Senate Finance Committee, which will remain in Democratic control and can request Trump’s records in order to do its own investigation of the IRS’s presidential audit program.
At some point, however, Trump’s tax documents must make their way into the public realm. And while Neal might be inclined to keep the tax documents private in order to show that he stayed true to his word about investigating the IRS, the reality is that Americans are owed some transparency about their former president’s financial ties. It may be unorthodox for a president’s tax returns to be made public through Congress — though certainly legal — but the lack of orthodoxy began when Trump flouted presidential norms and decided to keep his filings private. And if Neal’s committee doesn’t have enough time to contextualize the returns with the findings of a complete investigation into whether the IRS properly audited the former president, then the public can wait until the Senate finishes the job Neal started. But eventually, after all the secrecy, the public has a right to know: What has Trump been hiding?
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.