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Trump's tax returns are heading for Congress. Better late than never.

Democrats can afford to be patient in the interest of new laws to stop alleged tax cheats like Trump.

Former President Donald Trump spent the entirety of his presidency safeguarding copies of his tax returns as jealously as a dragon sits on a pile of gold. Last week, the Justice Department finally gave the all-clear for House committees to receive copies of those returns from the IRS.

It’s about time — it’s been two years since Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, first submitted his request for the then-president’s returns. Congress now has a chance to use Trump’s returns to close the loopholes and tax dodges he’s reportedly employed for years.

But while we’ve long awaited this day, in the interest of crafting those new laws, it’s worth Congress making sure those returns remain a secret — at least for now.

Neal’s original April 2019 request to the Treasury Department asked for six years’ worth of personal returns from Trump and eight of Trump’s companies. Those documents were necessary, Neal wrote, as his committee was “considering legislative proposals and conducting oversight related to our federal tax laws, including, but not limited to, the extent to which the IRS audits and enforces the Federal tax laws against a President.”

Then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin rejected Neal’s request soon after it was received, arguing that it was based in politics, not any actual legislative need. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel backed up Mnuchin at the time:

Under the circumstances, we agreed that it was reasonable to conclude that the committee’s asserted interest in the IRS’s audit of presidential returns was pretextual, and that the true aim was to make the President’s tax returns public. … In the absence of a legitimate legislative purpose, the disclosure of the President’s tax returns to the chairman was barred by section 6103(a) and the Constitution.

But if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. In that vein, Neal’s committee sent an updated ask in June, now requesting returns for the years 2015 – 2020. This time, the Office of Legal Counsel supported the request; the 2019 decision “went astray,” the office now believes, and hadn’t given Congress due deference as a co-equal branch of government. The law in question doesn’t give the IRS the power to question the reasoning behind a valid congressional request, the office wrote in Friday’s opinion. Instead, it concludes the IRS should hand over Trump’s returns as requested.

We still aren’t sure when that handoff will happen. A current federal court order says that Trump’s lawyers will get a 72-hour heads-up before any documents get turned over to Congress. Trump could still try to delay their release by filing an appeal — but it seems unlikely that it will be able to block Neal indefinitely. Now, if the whole point of getting Trump’s returns was, as Republicans claimed, to embarrass Trump, it’d be a little late for that. He’s been out of office for months and we don’t know for sure if he’s going to run again in 2024. And, crucially, the law that allows certain congressional committees to request tax returns from the IRS also requires that those returns remain confidential.

There’s a key exception to that point — the Ways and Means and the Senate Finance committees both have the power to transmit the returns they receive to the full House and the Senate. At that point, all bets are off and there’s not much Trump can do about it. Until then, though, Trump’s tax info has to remain behind closed doors.

Could some Democratic staffer on the Ways and Means Committee still leak those returns to the press soon after they’re received? It’s possible, especially given how tempting it must seem for the more politically-minded staffer — Trump’s tax returns would make for a few embarrassing news cycles for the former president and his party. (Not to mention the fodder they’d provide for campaign ads in the midterms.)

I know my colleagues will be calling every staffer they know to try to make it happen. Best of luck to them there, but it would behoove those sources to keep their knowledge to themselves — at least for now.

Trump’s tax returns would make for a few embarrassing news cycles for the former president and his party

Instead, I’d prefer to see the Ways and Means Committee spend a few weeks really pouring through the documents and cross-referencing them with what we now know about Trump’s alleged tax manipulations. They should bring in outside analysts and agents and spend time actually crafting a bill that would address some of the loopholes that are regularly used by Trump and others like him — and direct the IRS to devote more resources to cracking down on cheats. And while they’re at it, they could tighten up IRS scrutiny of sitting presidents and work with the Rules Committee to consider new laws regarding financial disclosure of presidents and presidential candidates during elections.

Only once all that is done, and once the new bill’s text is prepared, should the full House get the chance to see what’s in Trump’s returns. In fact, dropping them both at the same time would help make sure that reporting on any weirdness inside those returns provides momentum for passing this new legislation.

That would have a much more profound impact than the initial spectacle any new revelations about Trump’s business dealings would provide. We’ve already been waiting for years to see what Trump has to hide — I’m willing to wait a while longer.