- A federal appeals court panel ruled that Congress can obtain Trump’s tax returns.
- The three-judge panel ruled that Congress’ request for Trump’s returns is “legitimate.”
- Judge David Sentelle also rejected concerns that Congress could intimidate future presidents with such requests.
A federal appeals court panel ruled on Tuesday that House lawmakers can obtain former President Donald Trump’s tax returns from the IRS.
DC Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David B. Sentelle wrote that House Democrats’ request for Trump’s returns “did not violate separation of powers principles” and that lawmakers on the powerful House Ways and Means Committee have a legitimate reason to obtain the returns in order to better monitor the IRS’ policy of auditing sitting presidents.
Sentelle, a Reagan appointee, wrote that Trump’s concerns about some of his private financial information potentially being made public did not outweigh lawmakers’ requests.
“This is certainly inconvenient, but not to the extent that it represents an unconstitutional burden violating the separation of powers,” Sentelle wrote in his 33-page opinion. “Congressional investigations sometimes expose the private information of the entities, organizations, and individuals that they investigate. This does not make them overly burdensome. It is the nature of the investigative and legislative processes.”
The court was also unmoved by arguments that allowing Congress to obtain Trump’s returns would lead to an irrevocable fracture in the relationship between two key branches of government, potentially opening future presidents up to intimidation by lawmakers who could threaten to make their financial dealings public.
“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.”
The ruling does not mean that Trump’s returns will be made public, though Democratic Rep. Richard Neal, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, has previously said that some information might be made public in a full report to the House. The committee said shortly after the appeals court decision that it expected to obtain the “requested tax returns and audit files immediately.”
Neal first requested six years of Trump’s taxes from the IRS in April 2019 as part of a wide-ranging investigation into the agency’s auditing process. The request came after Trump repeatedly refused to disclose his tax returns to the public, citing an ongoing audit.
The Treasury Department subsequently asked the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel for guidance on whether it should turn over the documents to Congress, saying it believed Neal’s request was a “pretext” for the panel’s “true purpose” of going on a fishing expedition through Trump’s finances.
The OLC said in May 2019 that it believed the Treasury’s determination was “reasonable[e]”and that the committee did not have a legitimate legislative purpose in sifting through Trump’s taxes. The Treasury Department then denied Neal’s request.
The Ways and Means Committee later filed a lawsuit seeking to enforce its subpoena for Trump’s taxes, and Neal sent another written request in June 2021 for the tax records from 2015 through 2020.
The Treasury Department again contacted the OLC for guidance on the matter, and in a July 2021 letter, a top OLC official wrote that the committee’s investigation covers “a plainly legitimate area for congressional inquiry and possible legislation,” and that it should therefore be granted. access to Trump’s taxes.
Tuesday’s appeals court ruling comes just a day after FBI agents executed a search warrant at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf club in south Florida.
The warrant was reportedly related to 15 boxes of documents that Trump took from the White House to his Florida home upon leaving the presidency. The National Archives and Records Administration asked the Justice Department in February to investigate if Trump’s handling of the documents, some of which were marked classified, violated the law.