On Tuesday, House Democrats finally, at long last, took the Trump administration to court over its steadfast refusal to obey a subpoena for the president’s tax returns. The move came almost exactly six months after the party retook the House of Representatives and two months after Representative Richard Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, asked the Internal Revenue Service to hand over six years of Trump’s tax filings. Along with the IRS, the suit names the Treasury Department, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig; Trump is not a defendant, as he technically has no say in this matter.
The administration has been steadfast in its refusal to give an inch to House Democrats. As a justification for the administration’s continued obstinance, Mnuchin has insisted Congress lacks a “legitimate legislative purpose” for the returns (which is not actually a reason because no such requirement exists in the law). The Justice Department has followed suit, stymying a potential investigation into documents that may very well be the Rosetta Stone of Trump’s presidency—clarifying the president’s relationship with Russia, his and his family’s attempts to profit from the presidency, and, quite possibly, evidence of criminal tax fraud.
In the suit, Democrats argue, “Defendants have mounted an extraordinary attack on the authority of Congress to obtain information needed to conduct oversight of Treasury, the IRS, and the tax laws on behalf of the American people who participate in the Nation’s voluntary tax system.” But they are also being careful—and perhaps more than a bit disingenuous. The official argument is that they are investigating “various tax laws and policies” relating to how the IRS handles presidential tax returns, but that’s not quite the full story. The tax returns could also contain evidence of impeachable crimes—something that would seem highly important to the House of Representatives.
But it’s a surprisingly real question whether Democratic leadership actually wants evidence of impeachable crimes. The charitable reading of Nancy Pelosi’s strategy of slow-walking investigations into Trump’s misconduct is that she doesn’t want Democrats to get out over their skis, given the importance of next fall’s presidential elections; the idea is to cautiously ramp up oversight, causing pressure to increase without risking galvanizing the GOP base.
But it’s also possible that, thanks in part to this delay, Trump’s tax returns will never be seen. “This should have been done a long time ago,” Texas Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat on the Ways and Means committee told CNN’s Chris Cuomo on Tuesday. “The delay has really—really means that probably we see none of this year and it will take a series of really fortunate developments in the courts to ensure we see it before the end of Congress.”
“You know,” Doggett warned, “being thorough and careful is important. Being dilatory is not good when your opponents’ tactic is delay, delay, delay.” In other words, Trump can keep stonewalling, and eventually the clock will run out. Subpoenas expire at the end of a congressional session. All Trump has to do is make it to January 2021, at which point the clock resets—and the election will have already come and gone.
But Neal’s slow-as-molasses approach means that, even after filing this lawsuit, Democrats are months behind where they could be. “If there were any sense of urgency we would have been where we are now by the middle of January, the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Jeff Hauser told HuffPost on Monday. “My view is Pelosi and Neal are trying to avoid a constitutional crisis,” Hauser continued, “because they don’t want to impeach him.”
That ultimately is the most straightforward explanation for House Democrats’ approach to Trump’s taxes, even in the wake of the lawsuit filed Tuesday. Their strategy is aimed at doing the bare minimum, quelling anger from the party’s base while not actually unearthing evidence of criminal activity. The worry is that real moves toward impeaching Trump will embolden his supporters, theoretically damaging the strong hand Democrats appear to hold heading into the presidential election.
But not doing enough oversight work could also backfire. Trump won by turning out new voters, to be sure. But he also won by depressing Democratic turnout, pointing to the party’s failures over the previous decades. He will undoubtedly turn to that strategy again. But this time, it appears, House Democrats are helping him: Demoralizing their own voters by refusing to hold the president accountable.