By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Why did a House committee release Trump’s tax returns? Because it could.

The Internal Revenue Service. Photo (cc) 2009 by Chris Phan.

I’ve been talking about this on Mastodon and Facebook, and most people seem to be unexercised about it. But I don’t understand the rationale for releasing Donald Trump’s tax returns to the public.

When Trump refused to release them during his two presidential campaigns, he wasn’t violating any law or regulation. He was simply violating a norm. He has not been charged with a crime. There is no connection between the House Ways and Means Committee’s investigation into whether the IRS was auditing him while he was president, as it was supposed to do (but didn’t), and its decision to make his returns public.

All I can come up with is that the committee has the right to do so, and that Democratic members decided they’d better do it now before the Republicans take control in a few weeks.

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  1. Lex

    Dan, I’ve got to take issue with your conclusion. Democrats released the returns not just because they could, but also to justify some of the questions raised and conclusions arrived at in the committee report in a case in which the taxpayer may well have committed tax fraud and other crimes.

    Beyond that, one of the most painful lessons of the Trump era is that way too many of our democratic norms need to be encoded into criminal law with harsh, mandatory penalties. No, there’s no legal requirement for presidents, or presidential candidates, to release their tax returns. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be.

    Indeed, I would argue that the following categories of senior government officials should be required by law to do so:


    President, vice president (and candidates for same), and all nominees for and incumbents of politically-appointed executive-branch positions.


    All House and Senate officeholders and candidates for same.


    All federal judges and nominees for judgeships.

    The Supreme Court’s happy horseshit on money as speech notwithstanding, political money demonstrably does corrupt our government. And a lot of that money is not in the form of political donations, but investment opportunities, free meals and travel, politically connected charitable donations, and so forth. At the least, Americans should be able to find out where that money is coming from. To that end, we need not only tax-return disclosure but also a much more rigorous mandatory annual ethics disclosure form, particularly for Supreme Court justices, as well as stricter ethics rules for justices.

  2. This seems like one of those times where the right analysis is the wrong answer. Chairman Neal has been incredibly cautious about Trump’s tax returns. Releasing them now cannot be fairly characterized as rash or purely partisan. The incoming House GOP is indisputably corrupt and cannot be trusted to do the right thing. Trump is indisputably a clear and present danger. He is effectively an enemy of the state. His own party is unwilling or unable to expose and depose him presently. This move by the W&Ms committee will help. Unlike private citizens, prosecuting an ex-president requires public relations. Every legal tool ought to be used to hold him accountable.

    While everything you indicated is true, the fear of setting a dangerous precedent only makes sense in a symmetrical partisan world. Every other presidental candidate releases their tax returns voluntarily anyway. Holding Trump accountable for the immense damage he is doing to our political system is a pre-requisite to repelling the authoritarian populism now endangering our constitutional system. The fact that the committee “has a right” to release the returns is, in this instance, more than sufficient justification.

  3. pauljbass


  4. Hey, the guy promised to make the returns public several times. Congress was just helping him out, right?

  5. Michael Traynor

    When you let people violate norms without consequences you create a new norm. Releasing Trump’s returns levels the playing field a little bit.

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