Squirming Over Information

Terry H. Schwadron

April 15, 2019

It’s information-squirming season again in Washington, with lots of self-serving spin being distributed to cover any ambiguity of taking partisan positions on items that should be considered non-partisan.

One top example emerging over the last couple of days — approaching the annual tax filing day today — involves the squirmish over a request from the Democratic House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-MA) to see six years of President Trump’s tax filings.

Another concerned the testimony by Atty. Gen. William P. Barr over the Mueller Report. Before a skeptical House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, Barr said he would release the redacted report next week and that he would be transparent about redactions in the report. But he demurred when asked whether he has briefed the White House on it. He also said that the Justice Department inspector general expects to finish an examination of aspects of the Russia investigation by May or June.

On the taxes, the cited, but rarely used law says that any individual’s taxes can be requested confidentially to meet legislative needs; in this case, that legislative need “to conduct oversight of our voluntary federal tax system and determine how Americans — including those elected to our highest office — are complying with those laws.”

Last week, lawyers for Trump sent the Treasury Department general counsel a letter, telling him not to release the records until the Justice Department has issued a new legal opinion. Over the weekend, White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney said Democrats would never obtain the tax returns, though he did not say how he was sure this would be the case.

Then, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said that Treasury Department lawyers had consulted with the White House general counsel’s office about the potential release of President Trump’s tax returns before House Democrats formally requested the records.Mnuchin said he had not personally spoken to Mr. Trump or those lawyers about how the matter was being handled.

Trump said the attorney general and the Department of Justice needed to review the request.

Former treasure secretaries say that cross-over from the oversight arena to the political arena is a no-no. Mnuchin had not previously revealed that the White House was playing any official role in the Treasury Department’s decision on releasing Trump’s tax returns. Indeed, they say that the Treasury Secretary should not be involved at all — that such a request should go directly to the head of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

To do otherwise is to invite political interference in such a decision.

Mnuchin suggested he believed that Congress was overreaching its authority and defended Trump’s right not to release his tax returns.

Now, to be fair, Democrats in the House probably do harbor partisan desire in seeking the taxes out of believe that for the president to resist so loudly must means that he would be embarrassed by something in the taxes. Nevertheless, it finally will be a court judge who will decide this case.

And all those Democratic candidates, including Bernie Sanders, are going through the same drill, releasing tax returns as if routine, which it should be.

My questions start with why the White House lawyers were involved. The White House lawyers are supposed to represent the White House, not the individual who is the president. As well, why is Mnuchin in the center of this rather than the IRS itself? And, lastly, of course, is why Trump won’t release his returns.

The tax returns can reflect not only taxes, income, philanthropy (or lack of it) but also likely contain some reflection of where Trump has gone to borrow money. In turn, that could raise questions about U.S. foreign policies under Trump and whether there is a relationship to Trump business interests. In a congressional hearing, Mnuchin criticized Democrats for requesting the tax returns, saying they should be glad Republicans did not seek the tax returns of Democrats when the GOP controlled the House of Representatives before the 2018 midterm elections. “I am sure there are many prominent Democrats who are relieved that when Kevin Brady [of Texas] was chairman of the committee, he didn’t request specific returns,” Mnuchin said. He did not explain who exactly he was indicating.

Trump has given a range of explanations for why he has not previously released his tax returns. He has frequently promised to release his tax returns once an audit of these returns is completed by the Internal Revenue Service. But he has not provided information to substantiate that there is, in fact, an audit underway.

All of this reflects an uneasiness that what is said aloud is less than true. That indeed is sad.

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