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Congress rises above the law on Trump's taxes
Plus: Zelenskyy's Christmas in Washington, like Churchill in 1941
Democrats in Congress spent six years in court Donald Trump’s tax returns, and now that they have them, they have voted to release them to the public. It’s wrong to do this. Trump, as a candidate, promised to release his tax returns, then flip-flopped, citing an ongoing audit. The New York Times, which obtained decades of Trump returns from other sources, confirmed that Trump was being audited for $700 million in losses he claimed in 2009, leading to a $72.9 million tax refund.
It was well-known by 2020 that Trump avoided paying taxes. In 2016, he bragged during a debate with Hillary Clinton that he was “smart” to avoid paying, and said he’d release them when she releases her deleted emails. It seems like a century ago that we were discussing this, but the whole Trump tax thing won’t go away.
Once in office, the IRS, by law, was supposed to audit Trump’s returns, because it’s a requirement for all presidents. Trump complicated things by breaking with ethical norms requiring a president to divest himself of private business holdings, to remove any potential conflicts of interest. Far from doing that, Trump bilked the government at up to five times the usual per-diem rate for Washington hotels for Secret Service details protecting his family. The Secret Service paid $17,000 a month for the use of a “cottage” on the grounds of Trump’s Bedminster golf property. He personally profited off the presidency at the taxpayers’ expense.
Yet the IRS, behind in so many ways, didn’t get around the auditing Trump’s returns for two years, until Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee pressed the agency about the requirement.
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It’s certainly within Congress’ purview and duty to hold the former president accountable for whatever taxes he might owe, and to expose his plundering the public trust. The Ways and Means Committee published a 29 page report on December 20, detailing the Trumps’ personal taxes. They did this under the umbrella of an investigation of why the IRS didn’t make it a priority to audit Trump’s taxes while he was in office, as it was required to do.
But in doing so, the committee also published many details of Trump’s personal finances they wrote “warranted examination by the IRS.” They didn’t need to do that, because the law is clear—presidents get audited. Listing bullet points of the issues is simply exposing a private citizen’s tax records to the public. It’s illegal for government employees to do this, normally, but Congress has extraordinary powers (the report spends at least six pages outlining the history, procedural grounds, and legal authority of Congress to examine tax records), sought, and won the right to examine Trump’s returns in court, and can do with them as it wishes, including releasing them to the public, which it voted to do.
It’s wrong to release Trump’s returns to the public because unless he’s committed some crime, which would be referred to the DOJ or the IRS to prosecute, it’s simply nobody’s business what is in his personal tax returns, because Trump, even when acting as president, was still a private citizen. Most presidents willingly release their tax information, but that’s the key word: willingly. Trump said he was going to release them but he didn’t. If presidents are to be compelled by law to release their returns, then Congress should pass a law mandating it, and President Biden can sign it. I am not sure it would be the best idea in the world, but it wouldn’t be the worst.
What’s bad here about what Congress did, is they rose above the law. They made special rules about what they could do, without passing a law compelling release of any particular president’s tax returns. So the Bidens get to decide if they want to release their tax filings (they have), but the Trumps don’t get to decide, because Congress did an end-around the law—Section 6103 of U.S. Code prohibits release of tax information—in its own investigative capacity, then essentially violated the law with no consequences.
The New York Times had Trump’s returns since 2019. They found the same questionable items as the Ways and Means Committee. The IRS has been looking into Trump’s taxes since before he was in office. The Trump Organization’s CFO pled guilty to tax fraud over a $100,000 tuition payment and will serve five months in federal prison for it. Nothing so far has tied Trump himself to tax fraud, though it’s well known he played fast and loose with his property valuations.
So what public benefit is now derived from the government releasing Trump’s taxes to the public? Besides being a “dangerous precedent” as Republicans on the committee asserted, is it necessary or right to compel release? If the president has no right to rise above the law, and we rightly criticize Trump, who in office gave the Russian ambassador top secret classified information—perfectly legal for him to do it—then why should we give Congress a pass for doing something patently wrong but legal for them to do it?
Democrats gratuitously used their power, in the last days before Republicans take control of the House, to ignore the law for their own jollies and to try Trump for tax evasion in the court of public opinion. So Trump is a crook; we all know this. The people who voted for him, and the ones who would vote again for him in 2024 know he’s a crook. Trump is proud of being a crook, because he believes the whole government is filled with bigger crooks. Congress did nothing to dispel this belief by voting to release Trump’s personal returns.
It’s just wrong.
Zelenskyy’s Churchill Christmas
In 1941, Winston Churchill sailed to Washington to join FDR at the White House. The U.S. was reeling from the carnage at Pearl Harbor, and Churchill joined Roosevelt in addressing the American people at Christmastime about England’s war that was about to become America’s war.
I can’t help but see the parallels in Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington just before Christmas, where he will meet with President Joe Biden at the White House in the midst of his country’s struggle to defeat Russia’s invasion.
Churchill greatly benefitted from the American lend-lease arrangement to provide war materiel and even pilots who flew with the RAF. After Pearl Harbor, America joined the war more properly. Zelenskyy has repeatedly asked for more and more advanced American weaponry, and with the deployment of the Patriot air defense system, will have finally gotten much of what he originally wanted. But Russia has many more missiles and drone to use, and will make Ukraine suffer.
Zelenskyy wants to assure passage of the next $37 billion emergency request for aid that is now before Congress. Some Republicans have used the Ukraine war as a rallying cry against intervention abroad, and Americans have become focused on our own economic and political woes. But there is still a bloody war going on in Ukraine, and it does matter to us who wins. Letting Russia off the hook by pressing Ukrainians to sue for peace, with Russia still controlling most of the Donbas, and Europe’s largest nuclear facility, is not popular in Ukraine.
Ukrainians see themselves much like the British did in the first year of World War II. Alone in the fight, but thankful for American help. They do not want the U.S. to shy away or lose commitment. The danger is that the U.S., still stinging from 14 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, with little to show for it, will not finish what we started, for fear of being drawn into direct conflict with Russia.
While Zelenskyy is traveling to Washington, Vladimir Putin is in Belarus, which was the launching point for his was last February. Russia is preparing their 2023 strategy, and despite their horrendous losses, they are by no means defeated. It would not be in Putin’s interest to widen the war to include direct combat with NATO troops. But it does help him to threaten it to keep us from making a bigger difference in the war.
Churchill had the dubious benefit of Pearl Harbor to express solidarity and compassion for his American friends. Zelenskyy has a much harder task before him. But as a leader, and as a great communicator, perhaps on par with Churchill, he may be up to the challenge.