With the House Ways and Means Committee chairman requesting President Donald Trumpâ€™s tax returns on Wednesday, the White Houseâ€™s representatives were tasked with explaining how the president could refuse to release them. They did so with a healthy dose of classic Trumpian spin.
Of course, illogic has long been a feature of Trump and his alliesâ€™ excuses for keeping his returns hidden. You see, he canâ€™t release his returns because the IRS is auditing him!
Yes, itâ€™s true he canâ€™t provide proof that he was being audited during the 2016 election campaign, nor point to a law prohibiting him from releasing his returns while under audit. And sure, almost every other president since Richard Nixon has released his tax returns even though the IRS automatically audits a sitting presidentâ€™s personal tax returns. But that doesnâ€™t mean heâ€™s hiding anything! Youâ€™ll just have to take him at his word, the presidentâ€™s defenders say.
Besides, acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney told â€śFox News Sundayâ€ť: â€śThatâ€™s an issue that was already litigated during the election. Voters knew the president could have given his tax returns, they knew that he didnâ€™t, and they elected him anyway, which is, of course, what drives the Democrats crazy.â€ť Yes, â€śthe election.â€ť Never mind that other election that happened more recently, in which voters gave Democrats the power to subpoena Trumpâ€™s returns. Never mind that two-thirds of voters think he should disclose them. Once an issue is litigated in one election, in Mulvaneyâ€™s view, itâ€™s closed forever.
In his letter to the IRS requesting Trumpâ€™s returns, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., noted that the committee has â€śoversight and legislative authority over our Federal tax laws,â€ť including whether the IRS â€śis enforcing the laws in a fair and impartial manner.â€ť And, notably, the presidentâ€™s defenders arenâ€™t contesting that Congress is in bounds to ask whether an agency headed by a presidential appointee is reviewing that presidentâ€™s tax returns the same way it would handle anyone elseâ€™s.
But fear not, the presidentâ€™s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow has found a novel approach to oversight: If Democrats â€śwant to know if the IRS is doing its job and auditing the president,â€ť he said on ABCâ€™s â€śThis Week,â€ť â€śwell, they could ask the IRS, what job are they doing?â€ť Itâ€™s a stroke of genius from Sekulow: Just ask an agency whether theyâ€™re operating by the book, but donâ€™t waste time checking whether their answers are truthful! Think of the time this will save future Congresses.
Sekulow and Mulvaney have one final objection: This is just politics. â€śWe should not be in a situation where individual private tax returns are used for political purposes,â€ť complained Sekulow. â€ś(Democrats) know the terms under law by which the IRS can give them documents, but a political hit job is not one of those reasons,â€ť said Mulvaney. According to Sekulow and Mulvaney, because the Democratsâ€™ request may end up being politically damaging for the president, that makes the request purely political and therefore legally illegitimate. If that means almost all congressional oversight requests - the majority of which may be politically embarrassing to a White House - are political hit jobs, so be it.
Distressingly, these various attempts to say â€ś2+2=5â€ť may matter little in the end. The president has said he will fight this all the way to the Supreme Court. All Trump would need is five of the nine justices - two of whom he appointed - to declare that 2+2 now equals 5. Should that come to pass, the president would be free to continue hiding this key information from the public, regardless of ethics and logic.
James Downie is The Washington Postâ€™s Digital Opinions Editor.