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Trump appeals judge’s ruling that tax records can be released by Treasury Department to Congress

In May 2019, the Treasury Department refused a statutory and subpoena request for President Trump’s tax returns. Now, it’s unclear if Democrats will get them. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

A federal judge on Tuesday rejected former president Donald Trump’s long-running effort to block the Treasury Department from turning over his tax records to the House Ways and Means Committee, but Trump’s lawyers immediately asked an appeals court to overturn the decision.

U.S. District Judge Trevor N. McFadden, a former Trump Justice Department official appointed to the court in 2017, said even if the former president’s attorneys were correct that House Democrats wanted his records only to expose them for political gain, they were “wrong on the law.”

“A long line of Supreme Court cases requires great deference to facially valid congressional inquiries. Even the special solicitude accorded former Presidents does not alter the outcome. The Court will therefore dismiss this case,” McFadden wrote in a 45-page opinion.

The House Ways and Means Committee sought six years of Trump’s tax returns, saying it wanted to review the effectiveness of the presidential audit program. Trump sued to block the release of the records, saying it was an attempt to harass him and dig up political dirt.

The decision is the latest by federal judges in Washington in a separation-of-powers dispute between Trump and Congress to go against the former president. A U.S. appeals court on Dec. 9 rejected Trump’s bid to keep his White House documents secret from a congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The appeals court had found that his claims of executive privilege did not outweigh the decision by his successor and incumbent President Biden to release them, setting up an emergency Supreme Court review.

The Biden Justice Department similarly agreed in July to release Trump’s tax records to the House, reversing the department’s earlier refusal under the Trump administration to comply with the House’s 2019 subpoena.

Congress should get Trump’s tax returns, Biden Justice Department says

In a written statement, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) said he was pleased but not surprised at the result, saying “We’re now one step closer to being able to conduct more thorough oversight of the IRS’s mandatory presidential audit program.”

Patrick Strawbridge, one of Trump’s attorneys, filed an appeal just before midnight to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

Trump’s legal team had raised six claims before McFadden, arguing among other things that the House failed to show legitimate legislative purpose, that separation-of-power principles prohibit the House from requesting the returns of a president or former president, and that releasing the records would violate Trump’s due process and First Amendment rights by rewarding an “effort by one political party to harass an official from the other party because they dislike his politics and speech.”

In his opinion, McFadden noted several statements by House Democrats including Neal and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) that Trump attorneys said revealed that their true intentions were to attack a political opponent, even if it meant exploiting some of the most sensitive information held by Americans that the government normally keeps secret.

Pelosi for example, McFadden wrote, predicted just before the 2020 election that under a new president “the world will see what [President Trump] has been hiding all of this time.”

But McFadden said that Trump’s legal case was weaker because he was no longer president but an individual suing Congress; the Congress and executive branch had taken the same side and were no longer opposed; and the IRS returns and mandatory audit program information requested was arguably not covered by executive privilege.

House attorneys said their aim was to ensure that a presidential audit program — a post-Watergate reform adopted after the Nixon White House obtained tax records for many political opponents — could sufficiently account for a president who, like Trump, controls hundreds of businesses and typically files “inordinately large and complex” tax returns.

McFadden found that claim was enough, given court precedent. As troubling as evidence of the House’s motivations might be, he wrote, the Ways and Means Committee need only state “a valid legislative purpose [and] it had done so.”

“It might not be right or wise to publish the returns, but it is the Chairman’s right to do so. Congress has granted him this extraordinary power, and courts are loath to second guess congressional motives or duly enacted statutes,” McFadden wrote.

However, if Neal’s true intent were to evaluate the presidential audit program, he could do so without making Trump’s tax data public, McFadden warned.

“Public disclosure of another’s tax returns is a grave offense,” the judge wrote near his conclusion. He said all sides were in “uncharted territory” with Congress’s request for tax information of a former or sitting president, and all could see that disclosing such information of a political rival was a move that would “return to plague the inventor.”

House Democrats seek 6 years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns

The House in July 2019 sued the Treasury Department to enforce a subpoena for Trump’s returns from 2013 to 2018, saying Trump alone among recent presidents and major party presidential candidates had refused to make his tax returns public, stonewalled Congress and mounted “an extraordinary attack” on oversight of the nation’s voluntary tax system.

“Numerous investigative reports have revealed that President Trump, through the complex arrangements of his personal and business finances, has engaged in multiple aggressive tax strategies and decades-long tax avoidance schemes,” the lawsuit stated. “Congress and the Committee, however, have thus far been unable to evaluate the President’s claims about the IRS’s audit process or to assess if and how President Trump has been able to take inappropriate advantage of the tax laws.”

McFadden froze the case pending the outcome of a similar multiyear legal battle testing the balance of powers between a president and Congress. That dispute was prompted by a House lawsuit to compel testimony by former White House counsel Donald McGahn over whether Trump obstructed the Russia investigation.

That fight ended when McGahn agreed to testify in June, after the Biden Justice Department, House Democrats and a lawyer for McGahn reached a compromise.

Earlier this year, Trump’s tax records also were turned over to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office after a separate legal fight.

Jeff Stein contributed to this report.