WASHINGTON — Liberals have speculated wildly about their contents. President Trump has called them his “red line.” Now this week, Democrats have taken a momentous step toward obtaining Trump’s personal and business tax returns, which they believe could turbocharge several House investigations into his past.
On Wednesday, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal of Springfield requested six years of Trump’s personal tax returns and those of seven of his business entities by next week. The move came as other key House Democrats threatened to subpoena 10 years of Trump’s financial records from his accounting firm and to compel the attorney general to release the full report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Russian interference in the 2016 election.
In targeting the tax returns, which Trump has refused to release despite decades of precedent, Democrats demonstrated they are undeterred by the summary of Mueller’s report that showed no criminal conspiracy between his campaign and the Russians. For Democrats, the tax returns hold the promise of breathing new life into a series of ongoing investigations.
“Show us the Mueller report. Show us the tax returns,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday, slapping the lectern to punctuate each demand. “And we’re not walking away just because you say ‘no’ the first time around.”
Trump and his administration are expected to fight the request, launching a lengthy battle that might only be resolved by the Supreme Court, and extending the fight over his tax returns into the 2020 campaign or beyond.
The president, who just a week earlier was celebrating being “exonerated” by a brief summary of Mueller’s report, on Thursday accused his opponents of overreaching and said they’ll have to “speak to my lawyers” and Attorney General William Barr about getting the documents.
“There is nothing we can ever give to the Democrats that will make them happy,” Trump tweeted. “This is the highest level of Presidential Harassment in the history of our Country!”
He told reporters Wednesday he was not “inclined” to release his returns because he’s under audit by the IRS—the same reason he’s given since early 2016 for not producing the documents.
Trump was the first major presidential party nominee since 1976 not to publicly release his tax returns, and the secrecy has given them an almost mythic quality among Democrats.
Two years ago, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow got her hands on just two pages of Trump’s federal returns from 2005. Millions of viewers tuned in to find out what was in those two pages, breaking her show’s all-time ratings record. The findings ultimately disappointed Trump’s opponents, showing he paid an effective tax rate of 25 percent, or $38 million.
But Neal’s request would produce hundreds of pages of detailed information about Trump’s finances.
The information could rekindle the inquiry into the president’s ties to Russia, despite Barr saying Mueller found there was not enough evidence to prosecute a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat from Washington and a leader of the House Progressive Caucus, said she believes the tax returns would shed light on whether “some of his actions and public policy, like around Russia, for example, could be explained by those conflicts of interest.”
Democrats also intend to scour the returns to see if Trump’s former fixer and lawyer, Michael Cohen, told the truth in his House testimony when he suggested the president inflated his assets to get loans and deflated them for tax purposes.
“At this point, the Michael Cohen testimony pretty much laid out a criminal enterprise,” said Representative Gerry Connolly of Virginia, a Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. “Do the tax returns substantiate that, shed light on that, or in fact contradict that? There’s no question that they are salient.”
The returns could also show whether the financial disclosures Trump was required to make as president contained key omissions. One would be the payment that Cohen said he made to buy the silence of adult film star Stormy Daniels about an alleged affair with Trump.
“We would go transaction by transaction and filing by filing to show that he filed false documents as part of his role as commander in chief,” said Representative Stephen Lynch, a Democrat from South Boston.
But in order to launch the offensive, Democrats first will have to get their hands on the documents. The White House is poised to fight in court, and will likely argue it is an invasion of privacy and a political fishing expedition unrelated to Congress’s legislative responsibilities.
“We will protect the president,” vowed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at a hearing last month when asked about the administration’s response to a potential request. It’s unclear how long the court battle would take, but some Democrats are worried they may not see the returns before the 2020 election.
Even assuming Neal receives the documents, there are strict rules around who else can view them. The returns would have to remain private unless the Ways and Means Committee and House voted to release them, which could start a fresh round of wrangling with the White House.
“It’s one step to get the information . . . but it’s another step to disclose it to the public,” said George Yin, a University of Virginia law professor and tax specialist.
Financial disclosure has become an issue in the Democratic primary, with several Democrats already releasing their tax returns, including Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Several top tier candidates — including Senator Bernie Sanders and former representative Beto O’Rourke — said they plan to release them but haven’t yet.
That’s a fact Trump’s Republican allies point out to defend him now that Democrats are closing in on his returns.
“We have Democratic candidates that are running for president that haven’t released their individual income taxes — why should he?” said Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a Republican.
The House recently passed a law that included a provision requiring presidents to disclose their returns, though it’s unlikely the Senate would take it up, and Trump would likely veto it regardless. And at least 18 states have considered legislation to require presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to appear on ballots this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures database. None of those measures have become law.
The push for release of presidential tax returns has strong public support. A Quinnipiac poll from March found that a majority of respondents — 64 percent — believe the president should publicly release his returns. Asked if Congress should investigate if he refused, 57 percent said it should.