President Donald Trump’s solicitous posture toward Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki and elsewhere, is helping to keep alive interest in his income tax returns: Does he have some hidden financial connection to the Kremlin?
Unlike his waffling on policy positions and factual matters, he has consistently refused to release his returns, contrary to the practice of every president since Jimmy Carter. Still, this is a poorly understood area of the law.
Here are five common misconceptions about the president’s tax returns and the public’s ability to review them.
Myth No. 1: Without legislation, we’ll never see Trump’s returns.
In a recent New York Times op-ed bemoaning Congress’s acquiescence to the president, Republican Charlie Sykes urged legislators to stop being “constitutional potted plants” and take action, such as passing legislation “requiring the release of the tax returns of presidential candidates.” Following Trump’s widely panned performance in Helsinki, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called on Congress to force the sitting president to release his tax returns, because the returns “would be so important” in determining whether Putin has compromising information about Trump.
A few others also made the call, as well:
At this point, disclosure of Trump’s tax returns has become a crucial national security/counter-intelligence concern
After today’s revolting display in Finland, Congress must commence oversight hearings and stop attacking law enforcement. We could explore the extent of ties between Trump’s business empire & Russia with @HouseGOP demanding the Trump tax returns. #CongressMustRequest
But new legislation, which would probably require a supermajority to overcome a Senate filibuster and a presidential veto, is not needed. Existing law — specifically, 26 USC §6103(f)(1) and (4)(A) — already authorizes the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation to obtain any of the president’s returns from the IRS without his consent, carry out an investigation and release the information to Congress for potential disclosure to the public, as long as there is a legitimate purpose.
This authority was established in 1924 in part because of congressional worries about conflicts of interest involving executive branch officials, such as Andrew Mellon, who retained many business interests while serving as treasury secretary. Trump’s possible conflicts and recent hard-to-explain statements could likewise justify congressional investigation and potential disclosure. Any of the tax committees may take the action unilaterally without the agreement of the rest of Congress, the passage of new laws or the filing of any lawsuits.
Myth No. 2: The president’s returns would reveal any Russia connections.
After Helsinki, outgoing Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., called for the release of Trump’s tax returns to determine whether the Kremlin has some type of leverage over him, noting in a CNN interview that “tax returns tell a lot of things that the financial disclosure requirements” for federal candidates don’t.
Last month, Bloomberg Opinion editor and Trump biographer Tim O’Brien wrote, “I suspect that Trump is hesitant” to make his returns public “because they would reveal, among other things, sensitive information about his business activities, conflicts of interest and financial pressures.”