COMMENT

It is easy to lose track of all the ways in which congressional Republicans are enabling President Donald Trump's ongoing slow-motion erosion of US democracy.

They mostly declined to correct Trump's lie that millions voted illegally, undermining public confidence in the US system. They refuse to prod Trump to show transparency about his business holdings, covering the tracks of his untold conflicts of interest. They are resisting an independent congressional inquiry into Russian efforts to swing the election.

Those last two enabling efforts meet in the refusal of Republicans to prod Trump to release his tax returns, which could shed light on his holdings and on his potential financial dealings with Russia. And the stakes of the GOP refusal to push for those tax returns have now been underscored by a new CNN report that Russians privately claimed to have potentially compromising information that may have come from Trump's finances:

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"Russian Government officials discussed having potentially 'derogatory' information about then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and some of his top aides in conversations intercepted by US intelligence during the 2016 election, according to two former intelligence officials and a congressional source.

"One source described the information as financial in nature and said the discussion centered on whether the Russians had leverage over Trump's inner circle. The source said the intercepted communications suggested to US intelligence that Russians believed 'they had the ability to influence the Administration through the derogatory information.'"

To be sure, this report is a bit sketchy. The sources refused to tell CNN which aides were discussed by Russian officials, and they also allowed that this claim to having potential leverage over Trump may have been Russian bluster.

But nonetheless, this revelation provides Democrats with an opening - to renew the pressure on congressional Republicans to prod Trump into releasing his tax returns, or to get access to them via other means.

Norm Eisen, the ethics tsar under former President Barack Obama, argued to me this morning that the CNN scoop reminds us of the importance of getting access to those tax returns. He also reiterated that Republicans have the power to see these returns if they want to.

"Trump's taxes are an important first piece in the puzzle to determine whether or not he has financial ties to Russia," Eisen told me. Eisen noted that Trump's lawyers recently released a letter claiming Trump had only negligible income from (or debt to) Russian sources over the last 10 years. But as tax expert David Cay Johnston quickly pointed out, the letter was "artfully written" to elide an inquiry into what we really "need to know about Trump and Russian money," which "involves transactions prior to 10 years ago."

Eisen noted that without seeing the actual returns themselves, these assertions by Trump's lawyers "are virtually meaningless," and added that it is now on congressional Republicans to pick up the inquiry. "The tax committees of Congress have the legal right to demand from the IRS, to examine, and to share tax returns if a proper public purpose is met," Eisen said.

Democrats have also zeroed in on this point. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, has repeatedly pressed the committee's GOP chairman, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, to use his authority to secure an opportunity for committee members to privately view Trump's tax returns. Hatch refused, citing limitations on his own authority to do this that Democrats say is bogus. Republicans have blocked other measures designed to access the tax returns.

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The important point here is that broadly speaking, most Republicans are inclined against taking whatever steps are necessary to deepen their own (not to mention the public's) understanding of the Russia affair.

There are other measures Republicans could take to try to force access to the tax returns, either through legislation or simply by issuing more forceful calls on him to release them. Again: All we are talking about here is a baseline standard of transparency, one that Republican and Democratic presidential candidates have held themselves to for decades, because they recognised that the American people have a right to this transparency from their public officials, a right Trump does not recognise - and one congressional Republicans are now shrugging off.

The Washington Post reported over the weekend that top Trump adviser Jared Kushner sought to set up a secure line of communication between Trump's transition and the Kremlin. Top Democrats are now calling for a congressional review of whether Kushner should have his security clearance revoked.

There is little indication of interest in this from Republicans, and even more remarkably, this comes even as Republicans are now defending Trump's explicit undermining of the post-war system of Western alliances during his trip abroad.

While it is perfectly possible that all this could ultimately produce no evidence of serious wrongdoing by Trump and his team, this is also about establishing a full accounting of Russian efforts to sabotage our election, regardless of whether there was any collusion. Republicans are resisting even this.

But, fortunately, the drip-drip-drip of revelations, as well as Trump's own ham-handed efforts at interference, have made it incrementally less tenable for Republicans to hold out against such a full accounting.

The increments are tiny, to be sure. But they are not non-existent, and Trump's increasingly hollow and anguished shouts of "Fake News" will not stop them from continuing.