One of the many ways the Trump administration is declaring that Congress is not, in fact, a co-equal branch of government with the power to provide oversight of the Executive is by stonewalling on The Tax Returns. Up until 2016, every major-party presidential candidate since Watergate had released theirs, and Donald Trump promised throughout the campaign he would release his once he was no longer "under audit." This was one in a series of quantum excuses he zipped back and forth between, but it was also entirely contrived: Trump could have released his taxes while he was under audit, or released any previous years that were certainly not under audit. But this was (mostly) his line, until he got into office and he and his lackeys promptly declared that the American people had rubber-stamped his secrecy about who's putting money in his pocket by electing him. Suddenly, there was no need to release them. Audit? What audit?
Since then, The New York Times has reported Trump and his family engaged in a decades-long pattern of suspect tax schemes, some of which rose to the level of outright fraud. (That's a crime.) We also learned, thanks to a leak of 10 years of tax returns, that he lost $1 billion of other people's money over the course of a decade-yet his lifestyle never much changed. Pretty much every organization he's ever run is under investigation or has been shuttered amid allegations of fraud. A lawsuit alleging he is in violation of the Emoluments Clause-because, as he refused to divest from his businesses, he's taking payments from foreign entities, like the Saudis, while in office-has been steadily winding its way through the court system. That is to say, there's more reason than ever to get a look at the president's tax returns to see who's paying him.
Now that Democrats have control of the House of Representatives, they have asked Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to hand them over. He refused, with the outlandish suggestion that the Ways and Means Committee lacks a "legislative purpose" for asking. So the committee subpoenaed them. Mnuchin defied the subpoena, even though a 1924 law expressly states that the Treasury Secretary "shall furnish" tax returns to Congress on request. (The law was passed in response to Teapot Dome, a 1920s presidential corruption scandal.) This was confirmed by a confidential memo from the IRS-an agency under the purview of the Treasury Department-obtained by the Washington Post Tuesday, which backed the idea Mnuchin would have to hand over the returns unless the president claims "executive privilege":
The 10-page document says the law “does not allow the Secretary to exercise discretion in disclosing the information provided the statutory conditions are met” and directly rejects the reason Mnuchin has cited for withholding the information.
“[T]he Secretary’s obligation to disclose return and return information would not be affected by the failure of a tax writing committee . . . to state a reason for the request,” it says. It adds that the “only basis the agency’s refusal to comply with a committee’s subpoena would be the invocation of the doctrine of executive privilege.”
So it increasingly appears Mnuchin does not have a leg to stand on. The committee needs no "legislative purpose"-though it has one if it's looking to, say, amend ethics statutes to root out the kind of behavior that appears rampant in The Great American Heist. It increasingly looks like the Treasury Secretary is in contempt of a lawful congressional subpoena. That is, theoretically, a crime.
So it was a handy time for Mnuchin to appear before Congress on Wednesday. The Democrats on the Financial Services Committee had some questions for him. First up was Virginia's Jennifer Wexton.
Rep @JenniferWexton asks Mnuchin about his refusal to comply w/subpoena demanding Trump's tax returns, & explains to him difference between legislative branch, which makes the law, & executive branch, which executes it. (The point being that his excuse for not complying is bunk.) pic.twitter.com/y77WQzAaCE- Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 22, 2019
Here Mnuchin is admitting he's aware of the "shall furnish" clause, which holds the Ways and Means chairman does not need to provide a reason he wants a look at the returns in order for the Treasury Secretary to have to turn them over. Yet Mnuchin still maintains he's operating on the Justice Department-i.e., pet toad William Barr's-guidance that the request for the returns lacks "legislative purpose." They do not need a purpose! It says so in the law! The IRS, which is under Mnuchin's authority, agrees!
Elsewhere, Mnuchin rehashed the Trumpist post-election gambit: the American People don't want to see them!
Mnuchin lies, claims "the American public knew that [Trump] wasn't releasing his tax returns prior to voting for him & they made that decision. That to me is a personal decision of his & the American public." (Trump repeatedly promised to release his tax returns once audit ended) pic.twitter.com/Yc6B1JHs7e- Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 22, 2019
As Vox's Aaron Rupar points out, Trump promised to release the returns, so the public did not know he never planned on releasing them. He lied about it. But anyway, it doesn't matter! The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has subpoenaed them, and Mnuchin is required by law to hand them over unless Trump makes a claim of Executive Privilege. (Privilege claims are often divided into two types: "presidential communications privilege" and "deliberative process privilege." It's not clear how Trump's personal tax returns qualify as either.) That the Treasury Secretary thought he could smirk his way through the hearing, peddling nonsense doublespeak, does not change that. Rashida Tlaib drove this home.
.@RashidaTlaib concludes her questioning by advising Mnuchin to "get personal legal advice" because "the coverup by this administration goes beyond just providing [Trump's] taxes."- Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) May 22, 2019
"I think you need to be clear about what your role is & what your responsibility to the people is" pic.twitter.com/BCHBo6oh46
Ah. It appears Mnuchin isn't smirking anymore. Perhaps he's thinking about the long list of Trumpists who are strewn about in the wake of the Trump Train, tossed overboard for The Leader's benefit.
The thing about serving an authoritarian leader is that he doesn't actually give a shit about you. He will force you to debase and disgrace yourself, as Mnuchin did here when he pretended not to know that American consumers are paying for Trump's trade-war tariffs. If you stick around long enough, The Leader will shove you in the path of an oncoming double-decker. You might even find yourself in legal jeopardy, which Mnuchin should if the Democratic majority has any interest in upholding the rule of law. Everyone is expendable to Donald Trump, American president. If you jump on the ride with him because he's offered you a powerful job or the economy is good, you will not be able to get off when the fun stuff stops. If there is a way out, he'll take it and shut it behind him. Sucker.
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