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Dems vow to grab Trump tax returns upon taking majority
Democrats are vowing to get their hands on President Trump's tax returns if they are able to win back the House majority in November.
"I'm definitely going to bring it up if we don't have them by then - that's a definite," Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a senior member of the House Ways and Means Committee, told The Hill.
The Democrats contend existing law empowers the tax-writing committees to access a president's tax history. If the House flips, they say they'll use their gavels to move swiftly to do just that.
"I don't think there's any question about it," said Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), the ranking member of the House Budget Committee.
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), another Ways and Means member, said that "of course" the Democrats will fight for the returns if they take the gavel.
"That's part of cleaning up Washington, D.C.," Chu said, referring to a central promise of Democrats on the campaign trail this year. "The appetite is there."
Trump's business holdings include stakes in more than 500 separate businesses spanning the globe, according to his financial disclosures.
In urging greater transparency, Democrats contend the public is entitled to learn where the money lies, where the debts are owed and whether the president's vast empire poses any conflicts of interest, particularly amid the ongoing probe into Russia's election interference and potential collusion with the Trump campaign team.
"The American public has the right to know whether or not a president is serving his interests or the public's interests," said Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the minority whip.
"I think that's something that was pretty well accepted before this president came along."
Trump, the first president since Richard Nixon to refuse to disclose his tax history as a White House candidate, says an ongoing IRS audit prevents such a release - an argument the IRS itself has refuted.
Democrats have repeatedly sought to force Trump to disclose his returns, only to be brushed aside by the majority Republicans, who have argued the need to protect the privacy of their ally in the White House.
"My belief is that if Congress begins to use its powers to rummage around in the tax returns of the president, what prevents Congress from doing the same to average Americans?" Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said in 2017.
Democrats say they need the returns to figure out if Trump has any personal financial ties that could potentially sway his decisionmaking as commander in chief.
Democrats have forced votes seeking Trump's returns, both on the floor and within the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees tax policy. The Republicans have been near-unanimous in rejecting those efforts. Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), a frequent Trump critic, has been the only Republican to join the Democrats in voting to secure the documents. Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.), another Trump detractor, has repeatedly voted "present" on those measures.
Pascrell, who's led the charge for the Democrats, is hoping to access the documents by tapping an obscure, century-old law passed to confront a series of scandals dogging the Harding administration in the 1920s.
Passed in 1924, the statute empowers the chairs of the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation to access anyone's tax returns - including the president's - and share their findings with the full committees behind closed doors. The panels could then vote to release all, or parts, of the returns to the public.
"You don't just get the tax returns and send them out there to the public," Pascrell explained.
Pascrell said he won't stop with Trump. He also wants to see the tax history of certain Cabinet members. He named Scott Pruitt, the former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Ryan Zinke, secretary of the Interior Department, as two figures meriting particular scrutiny.
Pascrell, who in the minority has forced more than a dozen votes on the issue, acknowledges it won't be easy to force Trump's hand even if Democrats win the House majority.
"Is it a slam-dunk to get them? No," he said. "But this is the business."
The Democrats appear to be anticipating a court battle over the release of the returns with a president whose long business career is strewn with litigation aimed at keeping his business interests private.
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who's in line for the Ways and Means gavel if the House flips, has been cautious in approaching the issue. Earlier in the summer, he told The Hill that, while he's interested in oversight, he intends to focus first on pocket-book issues like health care, middle-class tax relief and shoring up retirement programs.
"There will be plenty of time in the future to determine if this course of action is necessary," he said at the time.
Chu has proposed a second strategy for getting access to Trump's returns. She wants legislation requiring all presidents to release their tax history.
It's unlikely, however, that such legislation would pass in the next Congress even if Democrats score an upset and win back the majority in both chambers. That's because winning the 60 votes necessary to break a Senate filibuster is likely out of reach.
As a result, Chu says, "the Ways and Means method would be a better way to do it."
If the issue does come to a vote under a Democratic majority, lawmakers say there's no doubt the measure would pass the House - which would at least elevate the issue on the national stage ahead of the 2020 elections.
"I can't see a Democrat voting against it," said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.).
Hoyer seconded that prediction, saying: "If we're in charge and it's a vote of the House, I will tell you my expectation would be that the House would vote to release [the documents] to the public."
One sliver of Trump's tax history has emerged since he took office. In March of 2017, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow obtained his 2005 returns revealing that the billionaire businessman had paid $38 million in taxes that year on earnings topping $150 million. The source of the documents was former New York Times journalist David Cay Johnston, who after receiving the records anonymously did not rule out the possibility that Trump himself had leaked them.
Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush and a frequent Trump critic, said that Democrats aren't the only group interested in the president's tax returns. He surmised that Robert Mueller, the special council leading the probe into Russian election interference, has already got them.
"It appears that they're closing in on the basic financial structure of the Trump Organization," Painter told MSNBC last month. "Perhaps the reasons why he's not disclosing his tax returns. And what we may find there is really quite ugly."
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), another senior member of the Ways and Means panel, said Trump is embroiled in so many scandals that releasing the returns - whatever they contain - likely wouldn't affect the president's standing one way or another. Still, he wants the documents released in order to set a precedent for future presidents.
"I don't think people care much at this juncture what the president does," Davis said. "But I do think that people are concerned about the future of the government, and the operation of government, after the president is gone."