Kildee: Trump can’t just defy Congress on tax returns because U.S. ‘is not an autocracy’

Dan Kildee (left) and Donald Trump (right)

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) was asked Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” hosted by George Stephanopoulos, if Congress asking for President Donald Trump’s tax returns — which majority-party candidates voluntarily disclosed for decades — would be a “gross abuse of power.”

Stephanopoulos started out his interview quoting from a letter from Trump’s attorneys trying to block the request of U.S. House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) for the president’s tax returns. The host summarized the letter in which lawyers argue it “would be a gross abuse of power for the majority party to use tax returns as a weapon to attack, harass and intimidate their political opponents. Once this Pandora’s box is opened, the ensuing tit for tat will do lasting damage to our nation.”

Kildee, a member of Ways and Means, said it’s “certainly not a Pandora’s box.

“This is legitimate authority that the Congress has. This president, by the way, is the least transparent president that we’ve had in half a century; he’s broken precedent by not releasing his tax returns. We wouldn’t need to go through this exercise if he had simply done what he had promised to do.”

Sen. John Kennedy

Republicans like U.S. Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) have rallied around the president, instead of arguing to assert the authority of Congress, and attacked Neal.

“It must really suck to be that dumb,” Kennedy declared of the chair.

Kildee noted that section 6103 of the tax code gives the Ways and Means Committee chair “the right to order a tax return of a taxpayer in order to inform him and the committee on a subject that we are deliberating over.” He added that the panel is looking into whether the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) is “properly auditing and enforcing tax law” on Trump.

“It is not up to President Trump, it is not up to some lawyer that President Trump hires, to determine whether or not this co-equal branch of government has the tools available to it to make the deliberations necessary in order to make policy,” Kildee said. “This is not an autocracy. The president does not get to decide for himself and for Congress what a legitimate subject of inquiry might be. That’s left to the Congress.”

Stephanopoulos said the “courts may have to decide that.” He added that the president’s attorneys are “questioning whether you have a legitimate legislative purpose involved here” and why the committee isn’t asking for audits of previous presidents.

Kildee said “previous presidents in the last half century have released their tax returns and it would be easy for not just Congress, but any member of the public to take a look at that and make determinations as to whether or not the tax laws of the United States are being properly administered and properly applied to the president.”

Dan Kildee | Michigan Municipal League, Flickr

He argued that the “unusual situation” isn’t Congress exercising its authority under the law, but that Trump broke “nearly 50 years of tradition” by not releasing his tax returns in the first place.

The congressman added that Trump “not only has very significant wealth, but made the unusual decision to continue to control that wealth and not to have a blind trust but to actually pass on to his family with his full involvement with his full involvement the ability to control his wealth.

“There’s a real question, George, as to whether the president’s personal financial interests impact his public decision-making,” Kildee said. “The public has a right to know whether their president’s interests are impacting the decisions that he makes using the authority that we have granted him by electing him as president.”

Stephanopoulos asked if Kildee is worried about retaliation, since the law allows Trump to ask for the tax returns of top Democrats.

U.S. Capitol | Creative Commons

“The president and the Congress have legitimate authority. The question is whether we’re using that authority for legitimate purposes,” Kildee said. “We have a very legitimate public policy question that we are looking at, that’s why Chairman Neal has been so careful about this.

“Now, let’s be clear, we’re not asking for these returns to be made public. It’s not even clear that other members of the committee, myself included, will ever see any of this information this is specific to Chairman Neal, because he needs this information in order to frame the questions that we’re trying to answer and the policies that we are trying to potentially enact.”

He noted that Neal has been critcized for “being overly cautious” on the matter, appearing to allude to progressives. But Kildee said, “I think he’s been right on this, by the way.”

Kildee acknowledged the president could retaliate.

“Look, anybody who knows Donald Trump should be concerned about his abuse of authority. If he were to go down this path, it wouldn’t be the only example,” Kildee said.

He added that he law is clear that Congress has the authority to compel Trump’s tax returns and “no lawyer for the president should interfere or direct the IRS or the Treasury Department to ignore the law.”

Donald Trump | Gage Skidmore, Flickr

One of Trump’s lawyers, Jay Sekulow, was on after Kildee and said the issue will be litigated if necessary. Sekulow dismissed Kildee’s point about Trump not releasing his taxes during the campaign.

“He thinks the president should have put forward his tax returns before he announced or when he announced his candidacy for president, which sounds interesting, but unfortunately it’s not the law for the United States,” Sekulow said. “We don’t have a requirement that presidents do that.”

Sekulow added that attorneys are now protecting Trump’s “interests as a private citizen, as well as president.”

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Susan J. Demas is a 17-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 3,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 60 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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