What — you mean the Joe Biden Hearts-n-Flowers Unity Feelz Administration? Theoretically, sure, a change in control of the White House gives Democrats an opportunity to get their hands on Donald Trump’s tax returns. Realistically, however, this seems more like a pre-election warning than a post-election probability (via Newsmax):
President Donald Trump’s defeat will make it a lot easier for Democrats to finally get his tax returns, and some prominent lawmakers plan to keep the heat on the incoming Biden administration and House leaders to deliver.
Once Biden controls the Treasury Department, his administration could simply hand over the long-sought records to its allies in Congress, who have been fighting in court to force Trump to turn them over, so far unsuccessfully.
But Biden is casting himself as a moderate uniter, and releasing Trump’s returns risks looking like a vindictive investigation of his predecessor.
Before we address this specifically, it was answered more generally last week by Bloomberg, which wondered whether a Biden Department of Justice would attempt to prosecute Trump. Probably not, especially since Bloomberg couldn’t come up with an actual crime for its hypothetical:
Although Biden has said that prosecuting a former president would be a “very unusual thing and probably not very good for democracy,” he also vowed in an NPR interview in August that he wouldn’t “interfere with the Justice Department’s judgment of whether or not they think they should pursue the prosecution of anyone that they think has violated the law.”
With Republicans likely to retain control of the Senate, Biden’s nominee for attorney general will be sure to face tough questioning during confirmation hearings about the new administration’s intentions toward Trump. And Republican-led committees could strike back by amping up the investigations of Biden and his family’s finances that they’d already begun.
It’s a real question because on Jan. 20 Trump will lose the immunity from federal criminal indictment that sitting presidents are granted under Justice Department policy. Prosecutors could revive the investigation into campaign-finance violations that resulted in a three-year sentence for Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen and re-examine the instances of possible obstruction of justice that former Special Counsel Robert Mueller uncovered in his probe into Russia’s 2016 election interference.
There’s a problem with that specifically, in that Mueller himself didn’t push “instances of possible obstruction of justice.” He famously let it sit for William Barr to decide with no small amount of pusillanimity on Mueller’s part, even though he had plenary authority to at least recommend those charges. That alone makes it rather difficult to prosecute Trump on those charges without it looking like a railroad job. (“If Mueller wouldn’t charge Trump …”) As for the campaign-finance violations case, that strategy flopped when used against John Edwards under almost the same exact circumstances. Does the Biden administration want a flop like that in a high-profile case, especially with Edwards case as precedent? Doubtful.
The tax return issue is a somewhat different matter, but it’s subject to the same political and legal realities. If Trump decides to run again in 2024, or if he even starts organizing for it, Democrats will demand that kind of action from the Biden administration. However, as Politico notes, courts will take a dimmer view of official political prying into Private Citizen Donald Trump’s tax returns. With Trump out of office, there simply isn’t any legitimate legislative reason to scrutinize his tax returns. Plus, don’t forget that it would still be illegal to release them to anyone else but the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee. Any leak after such access would immediately put the House majority under an ethical cloud of its own.
That brings us to the main point, which is Biden’s ability to get his agenda through Congress. Democrats will have only a handful more votes in the House than Republicans will, plus it’s very likely that Mitch McConnell will control the Senate floor. Even if Democrats get a miracle in Georgia and end up with a 50/50 Senate, Joe Manchin has already emphatically declared to vote against any attempt to get rid of the filibuster. Biden will therefore need Republican cooperation and negotiation to show any success at all before the midterms, when presidents traditionally lose seats. If he can’t push any significant legislation through Congress by that time, or if the Biden administration gets painted as extremist and vindictive, Democrats will likely suffer a bloodbath in 2022 and likely lose both control of the House and any chance of regaining the Senate. Prosecuting Trump is a luxury Biden can’t afford, and neither can Democrats.
Plus, that kind of action would set a very bad precedent — although Democrats seem chronically incapable of comprehending long-term consequences from those. If Democrats use their House majority in 2021 to go after Trump’s tax returns, Republicans could very well do the same in 2023 if they win control of the House back. Rather than go after Joe Biden, though, they could go after the tax returns of Hunter Biden, and James Biden, both of whom seem to have prospered from connections to Joe, while claiming legislative privilege on ethics enforcement. They might also start looking at tax returns of other Democrats, or the tax returns of progressive PACs and mega-donors on the same basis.
Balance all of the potential damage to be done against any estimation of value received by exposing Trump’s tax returns. What’s the gain? Revenge, sure, but only of the most vain and corrupt style possible, and the best they would get out of it is to ensure Trump can’t run again in 2024. Talk about a briar-patch strategy for the GOP! They’d get the Deep State argument without Trump’s alienating and paranoid behavior.
Meanwhile, Democrats would have set fire to Biden’s opportunities to get some accomplishments through Congress, plus make themselves look more obsessed with sabotaging their opponents than taking care of their constituents. After watching Harry Reid detonate the nuclear option in 2013, it’s tough to entirely scoff at the odds of Democrats employing stupidly self-destructive strategies. This idea, however, would really take the nuclear cake.