California recently passed a law requiring presidential and gubernatorial candidates to release five years of tax returns as a condition for appearing on a primary election ballot in the state. The idea is to “provide voters with essential information regarding the candidate’s potential conflicts of interest, business dealings, financial status, and charitable donations.”
Although it doesn’t say so explicitly, the law is clearly aimed at President Donald Trump. Rightly so: His questionable conduct suggests such measures are needed.
Trump and his campaign have already sued to block the new law. The Constitution sets out clear — and minimal — qualifications for federal offices, including the presidency, and the Supreme Court has treated state efforts to adjust the founders’ recipe dismissively in the past. In addition, the judiciary has generally been protective of the First Amendment right to choose candidates without undue restriction. Basically, courts are wary of state laws that impinge on national politics.
California was nevertheless correct to enact this law, and to test the constitutional boundaries. Even if it fails, the effort will offer a way to affirm the virtues of financial transparency in court. It will signal to Trump that his misconduct will be challenged wherever possible. And, with almost a dozen other states pursuing similar legislation, it will help reinforce the modern norm that all presidential candidates must release their tax returns for public scrutiny.
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It’s unfortunate that such efforts are necessary. But Trump’s time in office has been a daily reminder that presidents will not always conduct themselves with integrity. Longstanding political norms that guard against corruption are under pressure from a president with flagrant conflicts of interest and a penchant for unethical behavior. As a candidate, Trump misled the public about his business pursuits in Russia. As president, he has used his office to channel revenue into a variety of family businesses, from the Mar-a-Lago club in Florida to the Trump International Hotel in Washington, where lobbyists, contract seekers, and grifters of sundry stripes drop by to deposit money in the president’s pockets.
With Washington unable or unwilling to rein in this behavior, others must step up. California — which has filed dozens of lawsuits against Trump for various alleged offenses — is leading the way. Other state officials and watchdog groups are rightly pursuing the president for financial misconduct, tax violations, ethical lapses and much else.
Political parties, too, have an important role to play. One task of parties is to screen presidential contenders for the public, keeping dangerous or unworthy office seekers out of the candidate pool. The screening process failed in 2016, and could fail again. Party elites shouldn’t choose the candidates — American democracy has traveled too far to return to backrooms — but they should adopt rules to inhibit unqualified or unethical people from seeking the nomination. Greater party control of primary debates would be a good place to start. Likewise, requiring candidates to release their tax returns would help screen out corruption.
Just as the Watergate scandal prompted reforms to restore public confidence in the political system, Trump’s presidency challenges American democracy to renew itself. Institutions at every level should demand that the nation’s chief executive meet the most basic standards of ethics, and hold him accountable for lapses. California’s new law seeks to do just that.