A federal district judge ruled Tuesday that the Treasury Department can give former President Donald Trump’s tax returns to Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal — and that Congress has the power to make them public.
U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden in Washington dismissed Trump’s challenge to a request from Neal to get the records through a provision in a 1976 law. The ruling also gives Trump 14 days to appeal.
McFadden wrote that Trump presented evidence that suggested the Ways and Means Committee’s purported interest in Trump’s returns — a review of an IRS policy that requires audits of the sitting president — is subterfuge for improper motives like exposing his returns.
“But even if the former President is right on the facts, he is wrong on the law,” McFadden, a Trump appointee, wrote. His ruling, however, included a warning for Neal and Democrats about the political implications of going after the private returns of a political rival.
That law gives Neal, as committee chairman, the power to request to see those returns, and it also allows three committees to submit them to the full House or Senate and place them in the congressional record, McFadden wrote.
“A long line of Supreme Court cases requires great deference to facially valid congressional inquiries,” McFadden wrote. “Even the special solicitude accorded former Presidents does not alter the outcome.”
The ruling is the latest twist in a long legal and political brawl over the returns, and intrigue and speculation about what might be in them. Congress has never requested the tax information of a sitting or former president, but Trump broke with a tradition set by his predecessors by refusing to release them before his election, citing an ongoing IRS audit.
“We are in uncharted territory,” McFadden wrote.
Neal, in a news release, called the ruling “no surprise” because the law is clearly on the committee’s side. “I am pleased that we’re now one step closer to being able to conduct more thorough oversight of the IRS’s mandatory presidential audit program,” the Massachusetts Democrat said.
After Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 midterms, Neal said he would pursue the public release of Trump’s tax returns.
The Trump administration denied the initial request and argued it did not have a legitimate legislative purpose. The committee filed a lawsuit against the Treasury Department that has never been resolved.
But the Biden administration reevaluated after Neal made a new request this year for substantially the same information for tax years 2015 through 2020. A July opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel reversed course and said there was a legitimate legislative purpose.
McFadden’s ruling found a number of legitimate legislative options about the IRS’s presidential audit policy that would be well within congressional authority.
That includes legislation about how many staff the IRS may assign to the audit of a sitting president, the funding levels for presidential audits, or whether the IRS is required to audit a sitting president at all.
McFadden pointed to numerous statements from House Democrats that “show a years-long obsession” to expose Trump, as well as statements from Neal and Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California that “suggest at least some mixed motives” for the request.
Neal in 2020 had said that release of the returns would allow “unraveling President Trump’s sophisticated tax avoidance,” while Pelosi as early as 2017 said tax returns would “be useful in the investigation of what the Russians have on Donald Trump.”
Yet courts can only analyze whether Congress has a legitimate purpose, “not whether that is the only purpose,” McFadden wrote.
McFadden also rejected arguments from Trump that Neal’s request was done as part of law enforcement, or that the 1976 law is unconstitutional, or that an ongoing audit of his tax returns should prevent the release. The ruling also rejected Trump’s argument that the courts should block the release of the returns because Congress could use the law as a political weapon against a president.
McFadden ended his ruling with a warning of sorts for Neal, writing that the chairman could understand the IRS audit program without publishing the returns.
“Public disclosure of another’s tax returns is a grave offense, and prior committee chairmen have wisely resisted using” the 1976 law “to publicize individuals’ returns,” McFadden wrote. “Anyone can see that publishing confidential tax information of a political rival is the type of move that will return to plague the inventor.”