IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Donald Trump's tax returns could be his greatest vulnerability, especially if Democrats retake the House

Cheating on your taxes may not seem sexy, but financial fraud remains a big potential problem for the president.
Image: Donald Trump, Fred Trump
Fred Trump and Donald Trump circa 1991.Adam Scull / file

President Donald Trump wasted no time celebrating the Supreme Court confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. Indeed, Trump took a very public victory lap on Monday with his primetime, ceremonial swearing in of Kavanaugh in front of a sea of very pleased conservative dignitaries. But with Kavanaugh on the bench, some of the stories that were momentarily buried during the confirmation chaos are bubbling back to the surface.

The New York Times’ bombshell report exposing what appears to be massive fraud perpetrated by the Trump family is one of these stories. According to the Times, Trump’s father Fred spearheaded a complicated con using “dubious tax schemes” and “instances of outright fraud” to evade hundreds-of-millions of dollars in tax payments to the IRS.

Cheating on your taxes may not seem sexy, but this scandal may very well represent Trump’s greatest vulnerability should Democrats retake control of Congress in November. Even if Democrats just take back control of the House, which seems more and more likely, that would first and foremost give them control of the gavel of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Oversight committee chairs have the power to issue subpoenas for Trump’s tax returns and the financial records of the Trump business empire. Remember, this is an empire that continues to do business with the federal government, further enriching the Trump family despite grave concerns about conflicts on interest in the executive branch. Not surprisingly, so far, these conflicts have gone mostly unchecked by Republicans in Congress.

As a candidate, Donald Trump told Chuck Todd on “Meet the Press” that he would “absolutely” release his tax returns. He never did. The New York Times’ reporting sheds light on the real reason why. Trump’s entire identity is rooted in the myth he has repeated so frequently he may very well believe it, “I built what I build myself.”

The unraveling of that lie could even lead to the beginning of the end for Trump and his presidency.

To be clear, there is precedent for investigating the finances of politicians. And much of this precedent was established by Republicans. For years, Republicans pushed for a multitude of investigations examining the nexus between the Clinton Foundation and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Trump himself was part of this push going so far as calling for a special prosecutor to investigate if donors of the Clinton Foundation received special treatment from the State Department. This obsessive fixation with the Clinton’s finances, coupled with her alleged misuse of a private email server, sparked the now infamous refrain, “lock her up.”

Whether or not the Clinton’s deserved this scrutiny, there is no question that Trump’s complicated financial network requires further inquiry.

During my time serving as the spokesperson and senior advisor for the House Oversight Committee, we championed the belief that the American people had a fundamental “right to know” about any conflicts of interest that could jeopardize the integrity of the federal government. Trump has used his office to raise the visibility of his business enterprises while profiting from it. Government employees are staying at Trump properties and government agencies are renting spaces in Trump-owned buildings.

Think about the implications of a president of the United States who is secretly in debt to foreign governments or even private individuals.

But what the Times’ reporting suggests is that Trump’s hotels are just the tip of a very large and very fraudulent iceberg. We still do know much about Trump’s finances. We do not know if he owes anybody money. We do not know the terms of his existing debts. We do not know if the shady tax evasion schemes allegedly started by Fred Trump continue or how they may have impacted his son's current empire.

Think about the implications of a president of the United States who is secretly in debt to foreign governments or even just to private individuals. Imagine what influence those entities or persons could potentially wield over the commander-in-chief.

The House Oversight Committee is no stranger to investigations involving complicated financial relationships or the IRS. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, Republicans on the Committee probed institutions like AIG, Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and even the mortgages that members of Congress received. They spent years investigating the inner workings of the IRS in the so-called “targeting scandal.”

Of course, a sitting president has never had his tax returns subpoenaed by a committee because for the past several decades it has been customary for major presidential candidates to release them voluntarily. (Some experts believe Robert Mueller already has Trump's tax returns.) But that doesn't mean that the new chairs of the House Oversight Committee or the House Financial Services Committee won't try if Democrats take over. Indeed, in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board published on Thursday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, revealed that demanding the president’s tax returns “is one of the first things we’d do — that’s the easiest thing in the world. That’s nothing.” In other words, we may be just one Congressional subpoena to the IRS away from finally finding out the truth about this self-proclaimed “self-made billionaire.”