Thursday’s decision by U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden makes it less likely that Democrats will win their lawsuit before November 2020, though nobody knows for sure how long the district court case and subsequent appeals might take.
The American public has seen the tax returns of every president from Richard Nixon through Barack Obama. Trump has offered a series of shifting justifications for keeping his private, including that he’s been under audit and that “people wouldn’t understand” them.
The House Ways and Means Committee sought access to the president’s returns under a federal disclosure law, but the Trump administration blocked its request in an unprecedented move. Democrats sued in July and then last week asked the court to hurry the case.
But Trump’s lawyers argued that the lawsuit raises too many questions about the separation of powers between Congress, the executive branch and the judiciary for the court to rush, and Judge McFadden agreed.
McFadden, a Trump appointee, wrote in his order Thursday that “the weighty constitutional issues and political ramifications it presents militate in favor of caution and deliberation, not haste.”
And there’s another reason McFadden wants to wait: Duane Morley Cox, an 80-year-old Trump supporter who has been filing motions to intervene in this case and several others from Logan, Utah.
Allowing this case to proceed could distract the president from his official duties, Cox argued in a brief filed in July. If Democrats had obtained the tax returns and were asking questions about them back in June, he suggested, Trump might have been too distracted to reconsider a retaliatory attack on Iran.
“But then the Iranians might have escalated matters,” Cox wrote, “and we could today be in a military situation which affected oil deliveries throughout the world, and resulting military consequences with their attendant negative impact upon the economies of many nations, including the United States.”
Trump’s team has already told the judge that it doesn’t want Cox’s help and doesn’t think he has standing to intervene. But McFadden still cited Cox as a reason to not speed up the case, noting that the Ways and Means Committee had “taken no position on whether Mr. Cox should be allowed to intervene” and that he hadn’t made up his mind, either.
The tax return lawsuit is one of several cases stemming from the administration’s refusal to provide testimony or documents in response to more than a dozen subpoenas from House committees. Another of those suits, in which Democrats are seeking Trump’s personal financial records from Deutsche Bank, might also yield some tax information.
McFadden’s order means that Democrats will have to rebut arguments that the court shouldn’t even hear the matter as well as arguments about the merits of their case, which turns on the clear language of a tax code provision known as Section 6103. The law says that in response to a request from a tax committee like Ways and Means, the Treasury secretary “shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request.”
Trump’s lawyers say Democrats have no legitimate legislative reason for their request and just want to embarrass the president.
Democrats argue that they’re conducting legitimate oversight of the IRS’s review of a sitting president’s returns and that a whistleblower has given them evidence of possible interference with Trump’s audit.