(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It looks like all you have to do these days to dominate a news cycle and force the president of the United States to tee up a predictably bonkers press conference in the Rose Garden is to accuse him of engaging in a “cover-up.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi uttered the magic words on Wednesday and, presto, President Donald Trump later stepped in front of a White House lectern adorned with a placard that offered a numerical tour of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation: “$35+ MILLION Spent; 2,800+ Subpoenas; 675 Days; 500+ Witnesses; 18 Angry Democrats.” Two other little signs abutted the Mueller tutorial, both displaying classic bits of Trump propaganda: “NO Collusion” and “NO Obstruction.”
Topping off the theatrics was POTUS himself, the most vaudevillian of Oval Office inhabitants. “I think most of you would agree to this, I’m the most transparent president probably in the history of this country,” Trump said to a Rose Garden audience unlikely to agree. “I don’t do cover-ups.”
But of course he does. The president has spent much of his adulthood drawing a veil over his failures and shortcomings, maneuvering to keep things hidden and enlisting the help of others along the way. He has visited repeated cover-ups upon his presidency too.
Even Trump’s Rose Garden performance was just one act in a show that turned out to be “Cover-Up Wednesday.” Across town in Washington, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin played his part by keeping Trump’s tax returns under wraps. He told the House Financial Services Committee that it would be “unlawful as advised by the Department of Justice” for him to comply with a Congressional subpoena requesting him to direct the Internal Revenue Service to hand over the returns. He said he didn’t believe he was breaking the law by ignoring the subpoena.
“I have been advised I am not violating the law. I never would have done anything that violated the law,” Mnuchin said. “Quite the contrary, I’ve been advised that had I turned them over I would be violating the law.”
We’re still waiting to see the legal basis for Mnuchin’s position, though. The Justice Department (overseen by the most transparent president in history and run by his appointee, William Barr) didn’t go as far as warning the Treasury Secretary that he would break the law by releasing the tax returns, at least according to a minimalist letter on the matter that Mnuchin has made public. Instead, that May 6 letter to the House Ways and Means Committee said he wouldn’t provide Trump’s returns because the committee’s request, per Justice Department guidance, didn’t “reasonably serve a legitimate legislative purpose.” Mnuchin said the Justice Department’s reasoning would be memorialized in a published legal opinion “as soon as practicable.”
More than two weeks have passed and that legal opinion has yet to arrive. If and when it does, it may contain language noting that Mnuchin would be violating the law by releasing the returns (especially now that he has testified to that effect). Still, Mnuchin’s primary argument for keeping the taxes covered up has been what he describes as a Congress hobbled by a lack of legislative purpose.
“Legislative purpose” is an argument that has circulated widely among Trump attorneys trying to keep his financial records hidden in what the most transparent president in history would never call a cover-up. Trump’s lawyers deployed that reasoning to try blocking Deutsche Bank AG and Capital One Financial Corp. from turning over his banking records. But on Wednesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos shot that thinking down, saying in his Manhattan courtroom that “the power of Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process.”
Ramos’s argument matched a similar line of reasoning that U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta offered on Monday in Washington, when he ruled that Congress was within its rights as a coequal branch of the federal government to secure records from Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA. That ruling is being appealed and it’s likely that Ramos’s will as well, but in the annals of courts ensuring that presidents can’t engage in financial cover-ups – and must embrace authentic transparency – both rulings are significant.
The Ramos and Mehta rulings will probably help inform any legal challenges to Mnuchin’s stance on Trump’s taxes. In the meantime, the New York State Assembly – also on Wednesday – passed a bill allowing Trump’s state income tax returns to be shared with Congress. The state returns track the federal returns partially but significantly. If all of this comes together, Trump’s accounting records, banking documents, and income tax returns will wind up in Congress’s hands, leaving the president exposed to legal and financial scrutiny in ways he has never experienced in decades as a businessman and public figure.
Over the years, Trump has managed to keep his health and academic records under cover and his ties to organized crime largely out of public view as well. He has used a dizzying number of lies and exaggerations to mask his poor track record as a businessman, hide financial problems and inflate his wealth.
It’s doubtful, however, that Pelosi was thinking of those things when she talked on Wednesday about Trump’s cover-ups. Perhaps front and center in her mind was the recently released Mueller report – a large part of which details the epic efforts of Trump and his team to obscure a number of their questionable activities before, during and after the 2016 campaign. Trump’s efforts crossed so deeply into possibly illegal acts that Mueller weighed charging the president with obstruction of justice.
Attorney General William Barr came to Trump’s rescue in the early days of the Mueller report’s public release, mischaracterizing what the report actually said as well as the gravity of some of the wrongdoing uncovered. He now occupies a special perch in the White House, as one of the legal advisers the president is most likely to turn to as pressures mount, as problems need to be covered up, and as he gets rattled enough to begin free associating about transparency and cover-ups in front of the Rose Garden cameras.
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Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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