Late last month, following a successful multi-year battle over the right to see former President Donald Trump’s tax returns, a House panel voted along party lines to release several years of those tax returns to the public. The returns were released on Dec. 30, just days before Democrats will turn over control of the House of Representatives to Republicans.
Reactions were predictable. Republicans called the move a vindictive, partisan cheap shot, wholly inconsistent with historical practice. And they said the move would result in retaliation against President Joe Biden and other Democrats when Republicans take control of the House. Democrats claimed that the release of the returns was “in the public interest,” arguing that American citizens have a right to know financial information about their president and his claims of wealth and financial success.
When the House Ways and Means Committee first sought copies of Trump’s tax returns several years ago, it argued that it needed them to help craft legislation regarding the Internal Revenue Service’s presidential audit program. The committee was also troubled by the fact that Trump refused to release his returns when running for president or while in office, as had become the tradition since the Nixon administration. But those past disclosures were all voluntary — as there is no law that requires presidential candidates or those in office to make those disclosures. Trump’s decision not to release his tax returns — despite repeated, vocal demands that he do so — was a political risk he was willing to take. He got elected anyhow.
The Ways and Means Committee may be right that changes are necessary in the IRS’ presidential audit program. And the issues of regular audits of presidential tax returns and the mandatory disclosure of tax return and other financial information by those seeking the presidency may be appropriate issues for consideration going forward. We can even accept the argument that the committee needed access to Trump’s returns in order to help evaluate the need for such legislation. But we are hard-pressed to understand how any of those considerations justify the public disclosure of Trump’s tax returns for the period of 2015-20. Instead, it is pretty clear that the primary purpose for the disclosures was a purely political effort to embarrass the former president.
Yet here, too, reactions to the disclosed information were mixed, with Trump critics claiming that it shows him to be a terrible businessman, a tax cheat and worse, and others accepting of Trump’s claims that he took advantage of legitimate, legal loopholes to allow him to avoid significant tax payments. We leave that analysis to others.
What bothers us is the precedent. In our hyper-polarized political environment, the Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee have invited a tit-for-tat response from Republicans. That is not a good thing. We urge Congress to rise above petty partisanship and to respect personal privacy, even of their political rivals.