Federal appeals court rules House panel can get Trump tax returns
While ruling marks victory for Dem lawmakers, former president likely to appeal to either full D.C. Circuit or Supreme Court
Just one day after the FBI searched his Mar-a-Lago home, former President Donald Trump suffered another loss Tuesday when a federal appeals court greenlit a House committee's request to seize his tax returns from the IRS.
The unanimous D.C. Circuit decision would send the documents to the House Ways and Means Committee, where its chairman, Massachusetts Democrat Richard Neal, and members could investigate how the IRS audited Trump’s tax returns as president.
“I’m pleased that this long-anticipated opinion makes clear the law is on our side,” Neil said in a statement Tuesday about the opinion.
“When we receive the returns, we will begin our oversight of the IRS’s mandatory presidential audit program,” he added.
The case comes out of a 2019 federal lawsuit filed by the House Ways and Means Committee claiming Trump's staunch refusal to hand over the documents underscores the importance of the committee's review of his IRS audits. It claimed that by refusing to respond to subpoenas, the Treasury Department and IRS shielded Trump from congressional scrutiny. The agencies were named as defendants and Trump later intervene.
In an opinion written by Senior U.S. Circuit Judge David Sentelle, a Reagan appointee, the appeals court found that the committee’s request for the records was within its scope of review — and that Trump had failed to state a reason he couldn’t comply with the request.
“Where … the Executive Branch comes to the conclusion that a request is valid, it has no choice but to comply with the request,” Sentelle wrote, rejecting Trump’s argument that the request was retaliatory and the Department of the Treasury was politically against him. “Any motive, retaliatory or otherwise, becomes irrelevant.”
The court's three-judge panel likewise struck Trump’s argument that, as a former U.S. president, his records shouldn’t be investigated.
“In this case, the need for the Trump Parties' information to inform potential legislation overrides the burden to the Executive Branch largely because that burden is so tenuous,” Sentelle added.
U.S. Circuit Judges Karen Henderson, a George H.W. Bush appointee, and Robert Wilkins, an Obama appointee, signed onto the opinion.
However, Henderson raised a concern in a concurring opinion that “the burdens borne by the Executive Branch [when such a request is made] are more severe and warrant much closer scrutiny than my colleagues have given them.”
Previously, a federal judge appointed by Trump dismissed his crossclaims and counterclaims, which attempted to prevent the IRS and Treasury Department from giving his tax returns to a congressional committee, prompting the D.C. Circuit appeal.
While the Justice Department did not support the House committee’s position under Trump’s presidency, the Biden administration signaled in July last year that it was switching positions, citing the committee's “sufficient reasons” for requesting the income tax returns.
The investigation dates back to the 2016 presidential campaign when Trump said that he could not release his tax returns because of an IRS audit. Trump’s decision to keep his tax returns private went against decades of precedent wherein presidential candidates release their tax returns while running for office.
The committee’s Tuesday victory is expected to be short-lived, as Trump can still appeal the case to either the full D.C. Circuit or Supreme Court within the next week. Still, it may further stoke political tensions that have escalated around various investigations related to Trump, who has teased to run for president again in 2024.
After the Republican figurehead’s Florida home was searched Monday, Republicans threatened an investigation of the Justice Department and Attorney General Merrick Garland if they take back the house in November.
While the FBI and the Department of Justice declined to comment on the purpose of the search, it came amid ongoing Department of Justice investigations linked to the 45th president, including the handling of presidential records and the effort to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory.