There are a few things Donald Trump has tried very hard to do since becoming president, mostly without success, like building a wall on our southern border or forcing China to give us back all our manufacturing jobs. But there may be no goal he has pursued with more single-minded determination than keeping his tax returns secret.
Yet congressional Democrats may finally be getting close to pulling them into public view.
Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, has come under intense criticism from Democrats for the leisurely way he has gone about attempting to obtain Trump's tax returns and the fact that he seems to be taken off guard every time the administration unveils a new obstruction tactic.
But it turns out that Neal may not be the only one with the power to pry the returns loose – in addition to other potentially damaging financial information.
As The Washington Post reports, Deutsche Bank, Trump’s biggest lender, responded to a demand from a circuit court hearing a lawsuit Trump filed to prevent the bank from complying with subpoenas from the House Financial Services and Intelligence committees by saying it has in its possession some of the tax returns the committees are seeking.
Since the bank’s letter to the court contains redactions, we don’t know for certain that Trump’s own tax returns are among those in question; it’s possible that the bank is referring to other returns sought by the committees, such as those of his son-in-law Jared Kushner or Trump's children. But the possibility that it has Trump’s returns, and that they might be forced by the courts to turn them over to Congress, is a tantalizing one.
This is one of multiple cases in which congressional committees have subpoenaed Trump’s financial records from various institutions including banks and his accounting firm, and Trump has filed suit to prevent the institutions from complying with the subpoenas. What's new here is that we didn't know that Deutsche Bank had the tax returns, if that is indeed what it has.
A word about Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank: In the 1990s, after a series of business bankruptcies and the spreading realization on Wall Street that Trump was a charlatan who could not be trusted to tell the truth or pay back his loans, it became almost impossible for him to borrow money. Deutsche Bank, desperate at the time to expand its American business, became the only major bank that would lend to him, feeding him hundreds of millions of dollars even as he defaulted on loans and reportedly lied to them in financial documents (that and more was detailed in a New York Times investigation).
It doesn’t end there. When transactions involving legal entities controlled by Trump and Kushner were flagged by internal Deutsche Bank watchdogs as suspicious, bank executives made sure they were never reported to the government.
We also know that Trump’s properties have long been a money laundering vehicle for Russian oligarchs and mobsters. For that he may not have criminal liability, but no one could seriously believe he didn't know exactly whom he was selling all those condos to and why.
Furthermore, you might recall that Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified that Trump inflated his worth in documents he submitted to Deutsche Bank in order to obtain loans. Lying to a bank in order to obtain a loan is bank fraud, a crime.
I want to highlight this part of The New York Times story about this latest development:
“Deutsche Bank has long been Mr. Trump’s primary lender. For most years, it has only the first several pages of his tax returns, according to the current and former bank officials, but the bank possesses far more detailed financial data. That includes balance sheets, financial statements and documents detailing the organization of Mr. Trump’s web of businesses, the people said.
“Congressional investigators believe those documents could be more helpful than the tax returns to understanding Mr. Trump's web of businesses and sources of his money.”
That raises the possibility that the documents in Deutsche Bank’s possession could point toward crimes Trump has committed. We know – thanks to reporting in The New York Times – that in the 1980s and 1990s he and his family planned and implemented a tax fraud scheme that defrauded the government of hundreds of millions of dollars; while he's protected from accountability for that one by the statute of limitations, I doubt anyone would be surprised if he engaged in other kinds of tax fraud more recently.
In short, if Trump can’t stop Deutsche Bank from telling all it knows to Congress, he could be in big trouble. We already knew that the bank had extensive records of Trump's finances; now we know that might include the tax returns he has worked so hard to conceal.
Finally, let’s consider the big picture. As far as I can tell there is not a single major Republican figure (outside of the “Never Trumpers” who oppose the president) who has said, “Why are we fighting about this? He should just release the tax returns and everything else, and let the public understand his finances.”
That’s because everyone, both Democrat and Republican, is operating under the assumption that there is something (or perhaps many things) within Trump’s tax returns and business records that reveals appalling misdeeds at a minimum and perhaps even criminal behavior, such that if they became public it would be a political catastrophe for the president. If they showed only that he is a shrewd and wealthy businessman he would have eagerly released them long ago.
Trump would like to keep it all secret forever but, failing that, he'd prefer to at least tie up these cases in the courts until after the 2020 election.
That may not be possible; the Deutsche Bank case is already at an appeals court (a lower court denied Trump's attempt to quash the subpoenas, so he appealed), and if they rule against him, his last resort will be to beg the conservative justices on the Supreme Court to come to his rescue.
Which of course they might. But the chances that we're finally going to see what Trump has been so desperately hiding for so long keep getting better all the time.