History mandates presidential candidates release tax returns, but not how many

Trump’s lawyers: demanding his tax returns is ‘unconstitutional’

Updated

We’ve known for weeks that Donald Trump hired a legal team specifically to help keep the president’s personal finances secret. We’ve also known for a while that these attorneys have made a series of desperate attempts to meet their client’s needs.

But what’s still coming into focus is how strange their arguments are. Yesterday, as the Washington Post reported, Trump’s lawyers asked a federal judge to block a congressional subpoena that went to the president’s accounting firm, condemning the directive as unconstitutional.

In a 24-page filing, Trump’s legal team asked the D.C. court to block a committee subpoena to Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, saying the panel’s demand “lacks a legitimate legislative purpose.” Even if there were one, Trump’s lawyers argued, the newly elected Democratic-led House overstepped its authority by passing a campaign finance and ethics bill as its first legislation in January that would require, among other things, the president and the vice president to make public 10 years of tax returns.

“H.R. 1 and any similar proposal to regulate the President’s finances would be unconstitutional. Congress cannot interfere with the Executive’s execution of his duties, or add qualifications for President,” wrote Trump’s attorneys, led by William S. Consovoy of Arlington, Va.

This is really quite weird. It’s one thing for Team Trump to go after subpoenas and congressional directives, but in this case, the president’s lawyers have told a federal judge about their objections to a legislative proposal that hasn’t even passed Congress.

Why? It’s probably because Trump’s legal team is targeting an existing federal law, which has been on the books for nearly a century, that says the Treasury Department “shall furnish” the tax materials in response to a formal request from one of a handful of congressional lawmakers.

If that law is unconstitutional, then the Trump administration can continue to ignore it, comfortable that Congress “cannot interfere with the Executive’s execution of his duties, or add qualifications for President.”

Except, that’s kind of nutty. Congress already has the authority to limit presidential powers, and it’s already passed laws about presidential disclosure requirements. For many years, presidential candidates have been required, for example, to detail their financial holdings, debt, and sources of income. Trump has gladly cooperated with this law, since he had no reason to believe his financial disclosure forms would cause him any trouble.

His tax returns appear to be a very different story. I wonder why.