Accountability for Trump Cannot be Left to the Ballot Box

It’s usually wisest to treat Donald Trump’s tweets with the seriousness of the ravings of a corner street preacher. But sometimes, among the defensive boasts, bullying provocations, and distracting shiny objects are revelatory signals that deserve examination and exposure.

Consider this:

As is usual with Trump, there are so many half-truths and outright lies in such a small space of words that it’s exhausting to deconstruct them all. Trump lost the popular vote by nearly three million ballots–and will likely lose by at least that many again–nor is there any telling how many of those were cast against him because of his lack of transparency. He repeatedly promised to release his returns after the election. Nothing prevents him from releasing his returns while under audit, nor is there any proof that he even was under audit before becoming president. All sitting presidents are automatically under audit by the IRS, but that hasn’t prevented previous sitting presidents from releasing their returns. He is losing the battle to keep his records secret, has little credible recourse under the law unless a partisan Supreme Court trashes precedent and the plain text of the law to save him, and is running scared of the dark secrets lurking in his taxes being exposed.

But those are the surface level lies and chicanery we’ve come to expect. The bigger, more dangerous issue here is the assumption that the norm of presidents releasing their tax returns should be litigated at the ballot box.

For starters, it’s logically nonsensical. Under this precedent, no presidential candidate would ever release their tax returns again: if they win, they could say the voters didn’t care and they should never have to release them. If they lose, public interest would wane and they could declare that releasing them would be a punitive act against an irrelevant private citizen.

More importantly, while civilian leadership in government is determined by the voice of the public every few years, basic accountability and security are not. We don’t determine whether to throw criminals in jail by popular vote. We don’t determine war and peace by popular vote. Releasing a presidential candidate’s tax returns to the public is designed to ensure both security and accountability: we have a right to know if a potential president is financially beholden to foreign, criminal, or simply unsavory interests; we have a right to know if they have perpetrated fraud against their country for personal gain. While the choice of president is subject to popular will, the right of every American to make that choice with adequate information about the candidates is not.

But it’s not just President Trump who is using this disturbing logic. Democratic leaders in Congress have used a very similar implicit argument in pushing against impeachment and accountability both for Bush Administration and Trump Administration officials. After the Democratic midterm victory in 2006, majority leader Nancy Pelosi took impeachment “off the table.” After last year’s 2018 midterm rout of Republicans, Democratic leaders have signaled a similar reticence. This is mostly a matter of political convenience: they believe that voters in swing states and purple districts dislike the prospect of impeachment, and they tell themselves that winning the next election is of such paramount importance that no matter of principle should stand in the way of what they calculate to be the best way of securing victory. Unfortunately, this means that, whether implicitly or explicitly, they are saying that the matter of accountability for criminal behavior, whether it be lying the country into a war or Trump’s multitude of crimes, should be handled at the ballot box.

This precedent is deeply destructive to democracy and the rule of law. If those in executive power cannot be held accountable, merely because of their very position, and if the opposition in the legislative branch cannot hold them accountable because they believe it would be politically detrimental to their near-term electoral interests, then America is no longer a democracy. It’s a lawless elected monarchy.

And monarchs who operate lawlessly won’t bother to keep holding elections for long.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.