Way back in May of 2018, I ruminated upon the idea that, for his own sake at least, Donald Trump really shouldn’t have run for president. “No one cared about his tax returns before the campaign,” I argued. “His lawyers weren’t coughing up file cabinets filled with all the dirty deeds done dirt cheap over the years, and it didn’t cost people 500 grand in legal fees to be his friend.”
What was true nine months ago is now almost aggressively axiomatic. Trump’s five-front war in 2018 — against the Robert Mueller investigation, the news media, his own attorney general and Justice Department, an adult film actress, and the entire intelligence community — has exploded in the intervening months into a self-replicating pan-dimensional legal confrontation that appears destined to last well beyond his presidency.
A lot of folks seem to have forgotten about Trump’s mysteriously unavailable tax returns. It’s that, or the issue itself was subsumed by the avalanche of mayhem that is the president’s daily fare. The administration went from lying about it (“I can’t release them; I’m being audited,” was demonstrably false) to flat-out stonewalling the matter. Anyone asking to see them now is invited to take a long walk off a short pier, but that bit of legerdemain may be coming to a close.
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See, the good folks over on the majority side of the House Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Rep. Richard Neal of Massachusetts, have not forgotten. They intend to deploy a little-known law that allows the committee to gain access to the tax returns of any US citizen they choose, and they have chosen Donald Trump. Once the returns are in hand, a majority vote by the committee will release them to the entire House, and from there, one assumes, to the world.
“The things in Trump’s past are appalling enough,” writes Paul Waldman for The Washington Post, “but it’s his current debts and business interests that we really need to understand. Trump himself obviously can’t be relied on to inform us of any conflicts of interest he might have; just look at how often he lied about Russia, claiming to have no business interests there when in fact during the campaign he was pursuing a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow that could have netted him hundreds of millions of dollars.”
The Trump administration has seen this coming for months, and is preparing to go to the mattresses in court to keep these returns under wraps. The law is the law is the law, however, so Trump’s best hope appears to be a long effort to tie the release of his returns up in legal proceedings until after the 2020 presidential election. Given what we already know about the decades-long brazen misdeeds of the entire Trump family, it is no surprise that the administration is willing to go to such lengths to keep this corner of Trump’s finances an ongoing secret.
Beyond the matter of the tax returns is the continued existence of Trump’s erstwhile lawyer, fixer and bagman, Michael Cohen. Cohen was scheduled to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Friday, but the date has been pushed to February 28 “in the interests of the investigation,” according to committee chairman Rep. Adam Schiff. This latest delay comes on the heels of Cohen canceling his scheduled testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which was also slated to take place this week.
While these delays certainly serve to ratchet up the drama (and the White House paranoia), they do not mean that Cohen has suddenly gone opaque and insubstantial. Far from it. The United States attorney for the Southern District of New York plopped a subpoena on Trump’s inaugural committee this week, right on the doorstep of the State of the Union address. That subpoena, according to reports, was inspired by a secret recording Cohen made of a conversation he had with a woman named Stephanie Wolkoff, who received a $26 million payment from the inauguration committee.
This situation is heavy, and will get heavier with the passage of time as prosecutors flip witnesses and draw closer to the core of the scheme. According to CNN, the subpoena lists a variety of possible crimes being investigated, including conspiracy against the United States, false statements, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering, inaugural committee disclosure violations, and “violations of laws prohibiting contributions by foreign nations and contributions in the name of another person, also known as straw donors.”
“The new requests expand an investigation prosecutors opened late last year amid a flurry of scrutiny of the inaugural committee,” report Maggie Haberman and Ben Protess for The New York Times. “And they showed that the investigations surrounding Mr. Trump, once centered on potential ties to Russia during the 2016 presidential election, have spread far beyond the special counsel’s office to include virtually all aspects of his adult life: his business, his campaign, his inauguration and his presidency.” According to the Times, the US attorney for the Eastern District of New York is also investigating whether foreign money was funneled to the inaugural committee by straw donors.
Thank you, Mr. Cohen. The scum, it seems, also rises.
Hovering over all this is Mueller, the man tasked with investigating a very busy criminal enterprise administration that breaks laws the way a baker breaks eggs. Mueller’s corner of this is Russian involvement with the 2016 election and obstruction of justice regarding same. He has most recently invited Trump ally and dirty trickster Roger Stone into his parlor, and right-wing nonsense factory Jerome Corsi may soon follow. Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker recently made noises to the effect that Mueller’s investigation will soon be coming to a close, but this may only be wishful thinking from a person who shouldn’t be holding the office to begin with.
Mueller is probably not pursuing the issue of Trump’s tax returns or the dealings of the inaugural committee because he simply doesn’t have enough room on his desk. Remember that the next time you hear someone accuse him of leading a “runaway” investigation. Beyond him are all the House committees now run by Democrats with subpoena power and the will to use it.
For Trump, this elevator only goes down; there is absolutely no reason to believe these investigations will simply evaporate once he leaves office. He has inspired no loyalty among the cohort of scumbags he surrounded himself with, and they will sell him out the first chance they get once Mueller tightens the screws.
Because justice in the US favors the wealthy and the white, and because the Justice Department itself is not fully convinced it can or should indict a sitting president, there is no reason to assume Trump will, for instance, wind up in prison. Yet the odds are increasingly canting toward his inevitable ruination as both a president and a powerful public figure, a day when his already tattered reputation is rendered to ashes. One way or another, this is likely to end poorly for him. It is only a matter of time and a question of how much damage he will do to the country before he is finally run to ground.
Like I said, the man should have stayed home.