On the Ballot: The President’s Tax Returns

J. David Ake/AP

We just recorded this week’s episode of The Josh Marshall Podcast. The subject was congressional oversight – specifically, that congressional oversight is perhaps the central issue on the ballot in November. People underestimate just how important real oversight is – both in terms of substantive good government and in bringing corruption and misrule to heel. The in many ways unwritten story of the early Trump administration is just how deep and pervasive the venal corruption seems to be – and venal corruption isn’t the only kind of corruption. We know what we know because of powerful, aggressive journalism. But there’s only so much you can ferret out without subpoena power. As much as we shouldn’t be, I think people will be stunned at just what is happening and now allowed to happen because Republicans don’t do oversight.

Here’s one example. I’m still trying to get final confirmation of this from people who work on the Hill or did. But I’m pretty certain that a Democratic chairman can subpoena President Trump’s tax returns. Not just willy-nilly for no reason at all, mind you. You have to have a clear and specific reason. And you can’t or are not supposed to just push publish and drop it into the public domain. But you can do it. The Ways and Means Committee has the ability to do this under certain circumstances because they are the tax-writing committee. But I don’t think they’re the only ones. The two committees which come to mind to me are the House Judiciary Committee and the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and possibly the Intelligence Committee. This means that Reps. Richard Neal and especially Jerry Nadler, Elijah Cummings and Adam Schiff become critical players. They’re the ranking members of those committees who would presumably move into the chairmanships under a Democratic majority.

The topic that jumps out to me is whether President Trump is using the Oval Office as a family profit center. The specific constitutional issue is the emoluments clause. But using the White House as a profit center in the domestic realm is also a critical issue. There’s no way to investigate this issue without seeing the President’s tax returns. I’m sure there’s a lot to investigate. Needless to say, this isn’t just the 2015 returns that were at issue in the 2016 election. There are now 2016 and 2017 returns.

This isn’t just a matter of partisan gotcha, though certainly there will be a lot of that. It’s critically important to understand the scope of the President’s self-enrichment, if and how his key decisions are affected by the family business. There’s also a Russia angle. But I’m pretty sure Robert Mueller already has the returns. So I’m less concerned about that. But these are critical matters: whether the core of executive authority is being driven by payoffs to the President and his family.

That is to me the most immediate and critical issue. But in our podcast conversation, we also ended up talking about less news driving but really equally important matters. In these partisan times, we tend to think of oversight as uncovering blatant corruption and scandal. But oversight is really a critical part of the process of good government, finding problems, finding areas where the government isn’t doing its job as well as it should. We discussed a number of areas where the Trump administration has simply abandoned protecting public health, civil rights enforcement in addition to busting crooked cabinet secretaries.

We’ll be posting the new episode later this afternoon.

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