Appeals court sides with House in fight over Trump tax returns

Trump argued Democrats intended to use the returns against him politically

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal speaks with Rep. Anna G. Eshoo after a bill enrollment ceremony in July. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal speaks with Rep. Anna G. Eshoo after a bill enrollment ceremony in July. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 9, 2022 at 1:16pm

The House Ways and Means Committee can use a federal law to gain access to the tax returns of former President Donald Trump, a federal appeals court in Washington ruled Tuesday.

The decision from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in a long-running legal dispute would allow committee Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., to get Trump’s personal records from the Treasury Department.

Trump, who intervened after the Biden administration said it would comply with the request, had argued that Neal and Democrats intended to use the returns against him politically or attempt to enhance IRS oversight of the presidency in a violation of the separation of powers.

But the D.C. Circuit panel wrote that they could analyze only what Neal wrote in his request, not statements by other members of Congress about what they may do with Trump’s returns once they have them.

“The mere fact that individual members of Congress may have political motivations as well as legislative ones is of no moment,” the opinion, written by Senior Judge David B. Sentelle, states. “Indeed, it is likely rare that an individual member of Congress would work for a legislative purpose without considering the political implications.”

The committee argued it needed the returns to properly assess tax administration, including the program that requires presidential returns be audited. The decision follows years of litigation seeking Trump’s returns under a 1976 law that gives congressional committees the power to review individual returns.

The law gives Neal, as committee chairman, the power to request those returns. Neal praised the decision in a statement Tuesday, arguing that "our position has been affirmed by the Courts."

“I’m pleased that this long-anticipated opinion makes clear the law is on our side. When we receive the returns, we will begin our oversight of the IRS’s mandatory presidential audit program,” Neal said.

The committee tweeted, “We expect to receive the requested tax returns and audit files immediately.”

The decision Tuesday affirmed a lower court ruling that dismissed Trump's lawsuit that seeks to block the Treasury Department from releasing to the committee his personal returns and returns of several of his businesses.

While the committee seemed confident it would obtain the returns soon, Tuesday’s opinion noted “the possibility of further appellate review in both this case and Mazars,” a case from the House Oversight and Reform Committee seeking Trump’s personal financial information.

A separate order issued Tuesday stayed the decision for seven days, allowing Trump to seek rehearing in the D.C. Circuit or appeal.

The committee has not previously requested the tax returns of a sitting or former president. However, Trump himself also broke with long-standing tradition by refusing to release his tax returns before or after winning his campaign for office, citing ongoing audits.

The first president to release his returns, Richard Nixon, did so while under audit.

The litigation started in 2019, while Trump was still in office. Neal and the committee requested access to his returns, which the Treasury Department refused to provide after calling Neal’s reasons pretextual.

Neal reissued the request in 2021, which the Biden administration said it would comply with. Trump then intervened in the case, reiterating arguments from when he was in office.

Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson wrote separately that she was concerned about the majority giving short shrift to the burden that allowing such requests could put on the presidency.

“Congress’s potential and incentive to threaten a sitting President with a post-Presidency [tax return] request in order to influence the President while in office should not be dismissed so quickly,” Henderson said.

However, Henderson concurred in the ultimate judgment.