Federalism, a concept that has allowed state governments to coexist and share power with a national government, has been a trusted cornerstone of our democracy since our nation’s founding. It now appears to be playing a growing role in ensuring that the Trump administration is held accountable to the American public.
Because of federalism, there are federal as well as state crimes on the books, with state criminal convictions falling beyond the reach of a presidential pardon. After Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was sentenced for his federal crimes, the Manhattan district attorney immediately brought a 16-count indictment against him under New York State law. If Manafort is convicted of these state crimes, he will go to prison regardless of whether he gets a Trump pardon. As Trump has been learning, federalism limits his pardons to federal crimes, which means they are not the get-out-of-jail-free cards he thought they were.
Federalism is also paving a new road to obtaining the closely guarded information in Trump’s elusive tax returns. Trump was the first major presidential candidate in recent history not to release his tax returns. He likes to pretend he wants to release his returns but must comply with an imaginary law that supposedly prevents him from doing so while under audit. Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal delivered a letter to the IRS requesting several years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns. Although the Internal Revenue Code clearly authorizes Neal to make such a request, and under the law it must be granted, the Trump administration is nevertheless trying to stonewall it.
Thanks once again to federalism, the IRS is not the only game in town. For years, Trump has filed federal as well as state tax returns, and his New York returns should have much, if not more, of the same sensitive information. This week, the New York State Senate introduced a bill that would allow the state’s tax department to release an individual’s state returns if certain congressional committee chairpersons request them “for a specified and legitimate legislative purpose” and if that individual’s federal tax returns were already requested from the IRS.
If this New York bill becomes a law, then whatever dark secrets are lurking within Donald Trump’s state income tax returns may soon get revealed, even if his federal returns never see the light of day. When Trump’s high school teacher taught the class a lesson on federalism, Trump was probably too busy bullying other kids or tending to his bone spurs to pay attention. But he is certainly getting an education about it now.