In the days before the November 2016 election, two Haverford College students came within a hair’s breadth of prising Donald Trump’s tax returns from a government database.
Nearly three years later, the man who federal investigators believe masterminded the plan is pleading guilty. Andrew Harris, 24, is scheduled to admit on Thursday that he used a student financial aid site in a failed attempt to access Trump’s most-guarded financial documents.
The plan, which Harris’ lawyer called a college prank, was beautiful in its simplicity — if faulty in its execution.
“This was a Wayne’s World scene gone awry,” said Harris’ attorney, William J. Brennan Jr., referring to the 1990s comedy films about two good-hearted teenage dreamers with a gnarly public-access TV show and not a lot of smarts.
In a previous interview with the Washington Post, Brennan had described the two students as Beavis and Butthead, two snickering MTV cartoon characters without an ounce of brains between them. He regrets that comparison. “They were Wayne and Garth in a blue Pacer with a dumb idea and a mixed run of luck.”
In the run up to the election, Trump had refused to provide his returns to the public claiming he was under audit. “You don’t learn anything from a tax return,” Trump said.
Every major party nominee since the late 1970s has released tax returns before Election Day, according to Factcheck.org. It’s a way of exposing potential conflicts of interests and “a form of checking on how a candidate conducts his financial affairs.”
Trump still maintains that his tax returns should remain secret. A move by California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, would require the president to release five years of returns if he wants to appear on that state’s 2020 primary presidential ballot.
Harris previously had filed an application for federal student aid, and noticed that the government form would redirect to the IRS and import his own tax returns automatically.
Harris and his fellow classmate Justin Hiemstra wondered: What would happen if they posed as one of Trump’s offspring? Could they use an application for aid to land the returns and scoop the nation’s biggest newspapers? Tiffany Trump had graduated in May 2016 from the University of Pennsylvania and had announced she was going to graduate school at Georgetown University. It could work.
Six days before the election, Harris and Hiemstra went to Haverford’s computer lab and logged in using another student’s credentials.
They accessed a Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). When they attempted to register under the name of Trump’s child, they were stunned to discover an application under that name already existed. Using Google, they successfully guessed most of the answers to a series of challenge questions to reset the password. Stymied four times on one of the security questions, they gave up.
What they didn’t realize was that the Department of Education was monitoring all traffic on the FAFSA site. The failed attempt sent up a red flag. The IRS dispatched federal investigators to Haverford shortly after. Harris and Heimstra allegedly admitted their roles in the scuttled scheme.
“The collateral effect of this college prank was [Harris] was kicked out of school,” said Brennan, the defense attorney. Heimster was allowed to graduate. “My client is very remorseful and wishes neither the president nor his family any ill will and realizes that this prank could have been devastating to many people.”
Harris has agreed to plead guilty in using another students credentials without permission to access a Haverford computer and to a count of attempting to access the tax returns of a taxpayer, without authorization, from the Internal Revenue Service.
The question remains, however, why a Trump family member would find it necessary to apply for financial aid. The hearing on Thursday is unlikely to provide an answer. In 2018, Trump and his Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos proposed slashing federal financial aid by $4 billion annually.