The GOP's laughable claim that demanding Trump's tax returns is an 'abuse of authority' — while championing his wall that Congress rejected
I’d like to propose an exercise. In this exercise, we will examine positions taken by various Republicans on two different issues and determine whether those positions are based on: 1) a clear set of principles judiciously applied in a consistent manner in both cases; or 2) nothing other than a craven desire to assist the political position of their party’s leader—in other words, to suck up to Trump. Shall we proceed then? Very good.
This week, the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), formally requested that The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote submit six years’ worth of tax returns—both personal and business. Neal did so on the basis of specific authority provided by Section 6103(f)(1) of the Internal Revenue Code:
Upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Finance of the Senate, or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Secretary [of the Treasury] shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request, except that any return or return information which can be associated with, or otherwise identify, directly or indirectly, a particular taxpayer shall be furnished to such committee only when sitting in closed executive session unless such taxpayer otherwise consents in writing to such disclosure.4
Harry Litman, a legal scholar, former U.S. attorney, and former deputy assistant attorney general, noted that this authority is crystal clear: “The language [‘shall’] is the well-established norm, across a range of legal settings, used to denote an absence of discretion on an official’s part. It leaves no room for quibbles.” Nevertheless, Republicans have quibbled.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX) is the ranking member (i.e., the lead member of the minority party) on the House Ways and Means Committee. You might think that position, not to mention the four years he served as that committee’s chair, would lead him to be invested in maintaining the committee's institutional authority, as it connects to the larger authority of the House of Representatives, as an important check on presidential power, no matter who sits in the Oval Office. You might think that, but you’d be wrong.
Brady, in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (the IRS falls under his department’s authority), stated that “this particular request is an abuse of the tax-writing committees’ statutory authority, and violates the intent and safeguards of Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code as Congress intended.” He’s wrong, as, in fact, Section 6103 was passed in order to do exactly this. As Ryan Cooper wrote at The Week:
Moreover, oversight of conflicts of interest is literally the entire reasonthis law came about in the first place. It was passed in 1924, in response to the Teapot Dome scandal and then-Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's refusal to reveal his possible conflicts of interest.
That sort of thing is exactly why the American people deserve to see Trump's tax returns. No president has ever continued to operate a vast business empire while in office. The conflicts of interests — plus instances of blatantly abusing his power to enrich himself — probably number in the hundreds. The man is plainly a crook.
Rep. Brady was not alone in standing by his unnaturally orange-hued man (Note: Echoing these sentiments, an unnamed White House official also slammed Neal’s request, telling CNN it was "abuse and overreach by Congress”). The top Republican in the House, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, joined in as well, asserting that Rep. Neal’s request represents an attempt to “weaponize the IRS to attack political opponents," adding, "Not only is it a waste of time, it sets a dangerous standard of having the federal government used as a political weapon." Really? A dangerous standard? You mean like this?:
A Harley-Davidson should never be built in another country-never! Their employees and customers are already very an… https://t.co/iTUQaIXwHJ— Donald J. Trump (@Donald J. Trump) 1530015469.0
That’s a straightforward threat to use the power of the government to harm a company whose business decisions Trump didn’t like. As if that wasn’t enough of a “dangerous standard,” how about when Trump threatened to use the power of the government to literally protect his own ass? That’s what he did when he tried to intimidate his former legal fixer Michael Cohen by hinting that Cohen revealing information about Trump while testifying to Congress might just lead to harmful consequences for the lawyer and his family.
But yeah, Rep. McCarthy, the real dangerous precedent is the House of Representatives using the authority granted by a clearly written statute to ensure that Trump doesn’t succeed in becoming the first president in 50 years to completely shield his tax returns. Sure it is.
Now let’s proceed to the second part of our exercise. When Congress refused to fund Trump’s plan to build a big, beautiful wall (I vaguely recollect Mexico was going to pay for it, right?), he went right ahead and said he’d just do it anyway. Declaring a national emergency—where one does not exist, mind you—to get around Congress’ well-defined power to appropriate funds is as blatant an executive branch power grab vis-a-vis the legislative branch as you can imagine. As I wrote in a previous post:
We have three branches of government because our founders believed that investing too much power in any one branch could, and likely would, lead to tyranny. If Trump does as he has threatened and manages to get away with it, he will not have ended a crisis, he will instead have plunged us into one as dangerous as any which our democracy has faced.
Other than a dozen Republicans in the Senate and another dozen or so in the House, the overwhelming majority of them stood and cheered Trump when he grabbed the power of the purse from the legislative bodies in which they serve. Both McCarthy and Brady, unsurprisingly, voted with Trump and against, to paraphrase Brady above, protecting Congress’ “statutory authority.” Thankfully, Nancy Pelosi and House Democrats are still standing up for the legislative branch, having filed a lawsuit this week to block Trump on constitutional grounds:
“The president’s action clearly violates the Appropriations Clause by stealing from appropriated funds, an action that was not authorized by constitutional or statutory authority,” Ms. Pelosi said in a statement.
“The House will once again defend our democracy and our Constitution, this time in the courts,” she added. “No one is above the law or the Constitution, not even the president.”
The Founding Fathers—whom Republicans claim to revere when it suits them—wrote the division of power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches into our Constitution. Clearly, the party of Trump has but one daddy now.
This absolute lack of principle, and willingness to take totally contradictory positions in order to benefit Trump, is, in fact, something this president looks for and rewards. We’ve seen that countless times, including in his recent nomination to the Federal Reserve of his lackey Stephen Moore—who, on a separate note, owes $75,000 in back taxes, and another $330,000 in child support, spousal support, and more to his ex-wife. This guy takes flip-flopping on economic policy to a truly unprecedented level, as the New York Times’ Binyamin Applebaum explained:
During the Obama administration, he warned that the Fed was sowing the seeds of hyperinflation. “Zero interest rates haven’t helped the economy,” Mr. Moore told The Washington Post in 2015. Following Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Moore executed a quick U-turn. He began to insist that lower interest rates were just what the economy needed. Mr. Trump reportedly settled on Mr. Moore after he was shown an article Mr. Moore co-wrote earlier this month making that case.
As if nominating one principle-free sycophant to the Fed wasn’t enough, Trump has since also said he will nominate Herman Cain—the pizza magnate who was ever-so-briefly a front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2012 before quitting the race after multiple women came forward to charge him with sexual assault or harassment. Like Moore, when it comes to deciding when the Fed should be raising or cutting interest rates, Cain has undergone a similar evolution, i.e., calling for higher interest rates when the economy was still recovering under President Obama, but then criticizing the Fed for increasing rates under Trump in 2018 even though overall growth was as strong or stronger.
Under Trump, the Republican Party has no principle beyond that of loyalty to its leader. Trump is running the Republican Party the way those closest to him, like Michael Cohen, say he has long run his family businesses (you know, the ones that wouldn’t exist without the money he inherited from his father, or the money his father gave him illegally, or the money he and his father illegally shielded from taxes).
Whatever values the Republican Party may have once stood for have been completely abandoned under this president. The only thing Republicans stand for now is Donald Trump.