Did Rachel Maddow Break the Law?

By now everyone knows that Tuesday night was huge from MSNBC. It all began with a Tweet, by Rachel Maddow, some 90 minutes before the show began, “BREAKING: We’ve got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC. (Seriously).

The Rachel Maddow Show drew the network’s second largest audience—ever! Outdone only by Countdown With Keith Olbermann in 2008, six days before the presidential election. The Rachel Maddow Show bested Tucker Carlson Tonight on Fox News and CNN’s The Messy Truth With Van Jones.

President Trump’s 2005 tax returns magically appeared in the mailbox of Trump biographer David Cay Johnston. Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist. It is reported that one of his children found the tax returns in the mailbox while Johnston was in Florida. Who sent the return to Johnston? The envelope did not have a return address.

Finally, the Left had the goods on President Trump! As it turns out the President earned over $150,000,000 in 2005. That’s a lot of money. However, he paid $38,000,000 in taxes or an effective rate of around 24%, which is a higher rate than Bernie Sanders did in 2014 or President Obama in 2015. Not much damning information here, unless the story is Donald Trump is a rich man.

The real story is not about how much tax Donald Trump paid. It’s about criminality and privacy. To publicize anyone’s tax information without their permission is against the law. The law reads,

“It shall be unlawful for any person to whom any return or return information (as defined in section 6103(b)) is disclosed in a manner unauthorized by this title thereafter willfully to print or publish in any manner not provided by law any such return or return information. Any violation of this paragraph shall be a felony punishable by a fine in any amount not exceeding $5,000, or imprisonment of not more than 5 years, or both, together with the costs of prosecution.”

It would appear, someone broke the law. Did the individual who disclosed the tax information of the President of the United States, do so without permission? If so, he broke the law. Unless we are to believe, as has been suggested by Johnston himself, that Trump was the source of the leak.

Did David Cay Johnston break the law? How about Rachel Maddow? Opinions abound.

The White House believes that by running the story, the network broke the law. Ahead of the Maddow broadcast they stated, “You know you are desperate for ratings when you are willing to violate the law to push a story about two pages of tax returns from a over decade ago.”

MSNBC on the other hand, proclaimed that disclosing the tax information was protected by the First Amendment. Countering the White House’s accusation of criminality Maddow stated, “For the record, the First Amendment gives us the right to publish this return.”

Did Rachel Maddow break the law by revealing the President’s 2005 tax records? Possibly. However, it would be a fool’s errand to press charges. As reported by the New York Times,

“The Supreme Court has said that journalists are free to publish truthful information on matters of public concern notwithstanding laws to the contrary as long as they did nothing illegal in obtaining the information.”

That said, it should concern each one of us that this information was revealed at all. Apparently, no one, not even the President, has the expectation of privacy anymore.

Jay Flickinger and his wife Kelly live in Virginia near their children and grandchildren. He served as a pastor for 20 years. Jay has a Th.D. from Andersonville Theological Seminary.