Had Trump’s Tax Returns been released in 2016. Had the full scope of his extracurricular activities, as in Access Hollywood, been more fully vetted, the Democrats wouldn’t need Trump’s tax return. He would have been dispatched back to where he belongs and doing what he does best. Scamming the public and acting the part of a con artist Reality TV Show toastmaster.
Wall Street Journal Editorial 5.8.2019
If Donald Trump’s claims of executive privilege are a threat to the Constitution, as his critics now claim, what are we to make of the unprecedented bill of attainder against Mr. Trump now moving through the New York Legislature? Every President in memory has claimed executive privilege, but New York Democrats want to hand over the state tax returns of one man, the U.S. President, to Congress.
Our friends at the New York Sun call this an act of “constitutional nihilism,” and they’re not overstating the point. Encouraged by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Joe Biden man, the Albany Democrats are poised to pass legislation that would let the state tax commissioner release Mr. Trump’s tax return to one of three Congressional committees.
The Democrats figure they can thus leap in a single bound over the battle now taking place in Washington between Mr. Trump and the House Ways and Means Committee over Mr. Trump’s federal returns. They’re also leaping over the Constitution.
The Albany Democrats claim they aren’t targeting Mr. Trump because their bill would let the tax commissioner release any individual’s New York tax return to Congress. This is hardly consolation. Mr. Cuomo and such altar boys as former Gov. Eliot Spitzer would have the power to turn over the returns of any political enemy. And once in the hands of Congress, they might as well be posted on Broadway.
Yet everyone knows that the immediate target here is one man, Mr. Trump. The rest is political cover. Why write the law now if not to assist Washington Democrats in harassing the President they loathe?
The ban on bills of attainder—laws targeting an individual—is as clear a constitutional principle as any in the great American charter. Article 1, Section 10 states that “No State shall . . . pass any Bill of Attainder.” The Founders wrote the passage to prohibit abuses that were common in England.
If Democrats want to go down this road, they should be ready for the boomerang. Both parties can use tax disclosure as a political weapon, and the Albany precedent will be repaid in kind by a Republican state legislature against a future Democratic officeholder. Recall that during the 1992 campaign Bill and Hillary Clinton hid Hillary’s implausible cattle-futures trading windfall in their undisclosed tax returns.
The fight over Mr. Trump’s federal returns is a classic struggle between legislative and executive branches held by competing parties. Congress says it has the power to see Mr. Trump’s returns from 2013-2018 under Section 6103(f) of the IRS code.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has rejected the House request on grounds that the law is “bounded by Congress’ authority under the Constitution” and the returns don’t “reasonably serve as a legitimate legislative purpose.” That’s the standard the Supreme Court has said should define the purview of Congressional oversight.
Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal says his legislative purpose is to assess how the IRS fulfills its policy of auditing presidential tax returns. But Mr. Neal has requested six years of returns, though Mr. Trump has been President only since 2017. Mr. Neal has also not sought the returns of previous Presidents while they were in office. In its breadth of years but focus on only one President, Mr. Neal’s request undermines his stated legislative purpose.
A court may settle this if the two sides can’t reach an accommodation, though that might take months or years. In any case a state has no business injecting itself in this federal checks-and-balances brawl. New York’s action is another example of the ways that Mr. Trump’s failure to observe customary political norms, albeit within legal bounds, has led his opponents to assume they can get away with anything in response.
Former California Gov. Jerry Brown was wiser in 2017 when he vetoed a state bill that said presidential candidates had to provide tax returns as a condition for being on the state primary ballot. “While I recognize the political attractiveness—even the merits—of getting President Trump’s tax returns, I worry about the political perils of individual states seeking to regulate presidential elections in this manner,” Mr. Brown warned. “First, it may not be constitutional. Second, it sets a ‘slippery slope’ precedent.”
We wish Mr. Trump would release his tax returns for political transparency. But he has no legal obligation to do so and his refusal doesn’t justify an abuse of state power. When it comes to violating the Constitution, some Democrats make Mr. Trump look like James Madison.