Judge rules Congress can see Trump’s tax returns

WASHINGTON – A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit brought by Donald J. Trump that sought to prevent Congress from obtaining his tax returns, ruling that the law gives the chairman of a House committee broad authority to ask for them despite Mr. Trump’s status as a former president.

In a 45 page reviewDistrict of Columbia Federal District Court Judge Trevor McFadden ruled that the Treasury Department can provide the tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee, which could vote to publish them. Judge McFadden, however, has put his ruling on hold for 10 days to give Mr. Trump time to appeal, which he most likely will.

Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, first requested copies of Mr. Trump’s tax returns in early 2019, after Democrats took office in the room. Federal law gives the chairman of this commission broad authority to request income tax returns from any person. However, the Trump administration refused to comply and the House ultimately filed a complaint. After Mr. Trump stepped down this year, Mr. Neal re-applied for the ex-president’s tax returns between 2015 and 2020, and the Biden administration released a Justice Department memorandum saying he had the right to receive them.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers, however, sought an injunction to block the request, saying it served no legitimate purpose and that the real motive was to expose Mr. Trump’s taxes for political gain. House attorneys said there were legislative reasons to ask for them, including considering whether changes are needed in an Internal Revenue Service program that audits presidents.

Even though many House Democrats have expressed a desire to expose Mr. Trump’s taxes without mentioning the IRS program, that justification was sufficient under the law, Justice McFadden wrote.

“Even if the former president is right about the facts, he is wrong about the law,” he wrote. “A long line of Supreme Court cases demand great deference to seemingly valid congressional investigations. Even the special care given to past presidents does not change the result. The court will therefore dismiss this case.

In a statement, Mr. Neal called the decision “no surprise.”

“The law is clearly on the side of the committee,” he said. “I am delighted that we are now one step closer to being able to conduct more in-depth oversight of the IRS’s mandatory presidential audit program. “

Lawyers for Mr. Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But a member of his legal team has already pledged to fight the “tooth and nail” congressional effort.

The case dates back to Mr. Trump’s decision – first as a presidential candidate in the 2016 election, then to power – to break with modern precedent by refusing to make his tax returns public.

When the Democrats took control of the House, they began to try to investigate its finances using the oversight powers of Congress. Among other things, they heard testimony from former Trump attorney Michael D. Cohen who said that Mr. Trump bragged about inflating the value of assets when it served him and undervalue when it has helped lower taxes.

As Manhattan prosecutors assess whether to charge Mr. Trump with fraud, they have focused on the financial documents he used to secure loans and brag about his wealth, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

The same federal law that allowed Mr. Neal to request Mr. Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department would also allow House Democrats to publish them in the Congressional Record, although that power has rarely been used, wrote the Justice McFadden.

Writing that the case places the country in “uncharted territory,” the judge – a person appointed in 2017 by Mr. Trump – warned that he did not think it would be wise for Congress to use his authority to publish taxes of Mr. Trump.

“Anyone can see that the release of confidential tax information from a political rival is the type of movement that will come back to torment the inventor,” the judge wrote. But he added: “It may not be right or wise to release the reports, but it is the president’s right to do so.”

In his ruling, Justice McFadden also weighed and rejected a series of other arguments put forward by Mr. Trump’s legal team as being inadequate. Among them, he decided that the case should be assessed on the basis of Mr. Neal’s request in 2021 – after Mr. Trump was no longer president – rather than that of 2019.

And he rejected lawyers’ argument that allowing Congress to obtain – and potentially expose – a former president’s tax returns would be unconstitutional on the separation of powers, arguing that the “threat” to such subsequent exposure would have a “minimal” impact on how presidents perform their duties.

House Democrats have filed a parallel lawsuit to enforce a subpoena from Mr. Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, seeking to obtain a broader set of his financial records.

In 2020, that case was taken to the Supreme Court, which sent it back for reconsideration using a stricter legal standard. Another Federal District Court judge ruled in August that lawmakers were entitled to some of the documents in Mazars USA’s possession dating back to 2011 and others dating back to 2017, and an appeals court heard oral argument at this topic Monday.

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