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Trump Can’t Keep Tax Returns From House Panel, DC Circuit Rules

August 9, 2022 by Dan McCue
Trump Can’t Keep Tax Returns From House Panel, DC Circuit Rules
The federal courthouse in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump cannot block Congress from obtaining his tax returns as part of a House investigation into audits of sitting presidents by the IRS, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upholds an earlier ruling by U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden who held that Congress has a legitimate legislative purpose for obtaining the tax records of Trump and his private businesses.

Judge McFadden also ruled that separation of powers concerns raised by the former president don’t outweigh lawmakers’ interest in the records. On this point too, the appellate court agreed.

The ruling is the latest, no doubt unhappy turn for the former president in the past 24 hours. On Monday, FBI agents raided Trump’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, evidently looking for documents the ex-chief executive should have turned over to the National Archives.

The Justice Department has yet to comment on the raid, which is said to have occurred Monday morning.

Writing for the panel, Senior U.S. Circuit Judge David Sentelle said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee had laid out legitimate reasons for obtaining the records.

“While IRS audits are often random, the IRS has required the audit of the sitting president’s tax returns since 1977,” Sentelle wrote. “This Presidential Audit Program is a creature of IRS regulations and is not required or governed by statute.

“The 2021 request articulates a clear legislative purpose on a matter which legislation could be had: the Presidential Audit Program,” he continued. “The Trump parties insist that any legislation codifying the requirement that all presidents undergo a mandatory audit would violate the separation of powers. 

“But codifying the requirement of the audit is not the only legislation contemplated by the committee in the 2021 request,” Sentelle said. “The chairman states that the committee is exploring the need for legislation that would provide further protection to the IRS employees conducting the audit and legislation ensuring that they have sufficient resources to conduct the audit even when the returns in question are ‘inordinately large and complex.’

“The chairman then goes on to explain why these specific returns and return information are particularly relevant to this inquiry. This is all we can ask,” the judge concludes. “The chairman has identified a legitimate legislative purpose that it requires information to accomplish. At this stage, it is not our place to delve deeper than this.”

Sentelle then went on to address Trump’s claim that the request was politically motivated and had no other purpose than to harass him.

“The mere fact that individual members of Congress may have political motivations as well as legislative ones is of no moment,” the judge wrote. “Indeed, it is likely rare that an individual member of Congress would work for a legislative purpose without considering the political implications.

“The statements of individual committee members and members who are not part of the committee provided by the Trump parties do not change this. The courts do not probe the motives of individual legislators. These motives are explicitly protected by the speech or debate clause,” Sentelle said.

Neal requested the documents in 2019 under a provision in the federal tax code that allows the chair to request individual tax records. This request was rebuffed by the Trump-era Treasury Department, based on a memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel.

The House sued in a bid to force the IRS to hand over the record, but changed course after President Joe Biden took office, renewing its request.

The Justice Department also changed course at this point, finding that the original memo from the Office of Legal Counsel hadn’t given enough deference to Congress’ oversight authority.

Trump then sued both the committee and the Treasury Department in a bid to prevent the records from being turned over.

Judge McFadden dismissed those claims.

On Tuesday, Sentelle and his fellow circuit judges, Karen LeCraft Henderson and Robert Wilkins, also rejected Trump’s claim that the request would unlawfully burden the executive branch of government.

Trump’s attorneys had asserted that submitting to the request would “hinder Congress’ ongoing relationship with the president … because this would empower a future Congress to threaten or influence the sitting president with invasive requests once he leaves office.”

Sentelle responded by saying whatever the actual burden, it “is not substantial.”

“While it is possible that Congress may attempt to threaten the sitting president with an invasive request after leaving office, every president takes office knowing that he will be subject to the same laws as all other citizens upon leaving office,” the judge wrote. “This is a feature of our democratic republic, not a bug.”

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and @DanMcCue

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