Video: Daniel Ellsberg risked his career and his safety to expose the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. He became one of the most famous whistleblowers in American history. The Washington Post’s Libby Casey explains what it means to be a whistleblower, what legal protections are and are not available, and what someone risks by speaking up. (The Washington Post)
Hey, have you heard about this whistleblower complaint?
An unnamed civil servant is alleging serious interference in government business. If the allegations are true, they could be a game-changer. They might set in motion the release of lots of other secret documents showing that President Trump has abused his authority for his personal benefit.
Wait, you thought I meant the whistleblower from the intelligence community?
Nope. I’m talking about a completely different whistleblower, whose claims have gotten significantly less attention but could prove no less consequential. This whistleblower alleges a whole different category of impropriety: that someone has been secretly meddling with the Internal Revenue Service’s audit of the president.
In defiance of a half-century norm, Trump has kept his tax returns secret.
We don’t know exactly what he might be hiding. His bizarre behavior, though, suggests it’s really bad.
Maybe these documents would reveal something embarrassing but not criminal (e.g., the relatively puny size of his fortune). Maybe they’d reveal that some of his financial dealings are legally dubious or even fraudulent, which would be consistent with past Trump-family tax behavior.
Most significantly, they might reveal that Trump has been profiting off the presidency. Among the relevant conflict-of-interest questions that Trump’s taxes could answer: whom he gets money from, whom he owes money to (and on what terms) or how his 2017 tax overhaul enriched him personally.
Not that you’d know it from the administration’s stonewalling, but Congress actually has unambiguous authority to get Trump’s returns. In fact, it has had the authority to get any federal tax return, no questions asked, for nearly a century. Under a 1924 law, Treasury “shall furnish” any tax document requested by the House Ways and Means or Senate Finance Committee chairs.
That’s exactly what the House Ways and Means chairman, Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., did in the spring. The statute doesn’t require him to state any legislative purpose for his request, but he provided one anyway: He said that committee needed to make sure the IRS, which it oversees, is properly conducting its annual audit of the president and vice president, as the IRS manual has required post-Watergate.
There is historical precedent for worrying about how rigorously the IRS might be auditing its own boss. In the early 1970s, the agency commended then-President Richard M. Nixon on his supposedly pristine tax filings, even though he owed about a half-million dollars in unpaid taxes and interest.
Since then, presidents have voluntarily released their tax returns. So Congress didn’t really need to worry much about whether the IRS was going easy on the president.
“The concern about the IRS’ audit is almost minimal or nonexistent if tax returns are public, because there are effectively a million auditors,” says George K. Yin, University of Virginia School of Law professor emeritus and former chief of staff of Congress’ Joint Committee on Taxation. “The public can see if there’s any funny business going on.”
Current circumstances are different, of course.
Still, from an optics standpoint, this IRS-audit-oversight rationale seemed a strange one for Neal to cite. Especially because it was the primary rationale offered, and there was no reason at the time to believe the IRS was actually being bullied. So, for the first time in history, the administration refused a Ways and Means tax request, on the grounds that Neal’s stated legislative purpose was “pretextual.”
But now, in retrospect, Neal’s stated purpose looks either extremely ingenious — or extremely lucky.
That’s because this summer an anonymous whistleblower approached the House committee to say its concerns had been justified. The whistleblower offered credible allegations of “evidence of possible misconduct,” specifically “inappropriate efforts to influence” the audit of the president, according to a letter Neal sent to the treasury secretary.
We don’t know the complaint details, including who allegedly meddled with the audit or how, and whether the IRS complied. The complaint hasn’t been released, and Neal said last week that he’s still consulting with congressional lawyers about whether to make it public.
But the exact details of the allegations matter less than the fact that they corroborate Democratic lawmakers’ argument that oversight of the IRS’ annual presidential audit is indeed a legitimate reason they — and hopefully, eventually, the public — should see Trump’s taxes. It’s hard to imagine how the federal judge in this case could now rule against the committee.
As is so often true with allegations of Trumpian wrongdoing, we’ve learned once again that there’s a there there — and there, and there, and all sorts of other places you mightn’t have thought to look.
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