“We expect to receive the requested tax returns and audit files immediately,” Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee said in a tweet Tuesday, though Trump could appeal the decision.
Even if they got the documents right away, Democrats have said in the past that they wouldn’t rush to publicize Trump’s tax information, which can reveal details about income and how much tax someone pays, but in Trump’s case is probably complicated by his multiple sources of business income.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the decision “an important victory for the rule of law.”
Democrats initially asked for the returns in 2019 under a federal law granting certain congressional committees any private tax information they formally request from the IRS.
Tuesday’s decision, from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, comes as Trump faces legal peril following his single term in office, which closed with him inciting a violent mob at the U.S. Capitol as part of a broader effort to overthrow the 2020 election.
A team of FBI agents searched Trump’s home in Palm Beach, Florida, on Monday, prompting an outcry from Trump and congressional Republicans, who said it was wrong to target a former president.
One of the defenses Trump raised in the tax return case was that the threat of future requests for private documents would overly burden a sitting president.
“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,” Senior Circuit Judge David Sentelle wrote in the court’s opinion. “This is a feature of our democratic republic, not a bug.”
Trump was the first presidential candidate in decades to refuse to release his tax returns, citing an ongoing IRS audit, even though audits don’t preclude someone from releasing the documents.
Once he became president, however, the audit excuse was awkward, since the IRS automatically audits the president and vice president each year, a tradition the agency instituted in the wake of a 1970s scandal involving Richard Nixon underpaying his taxes. In federal court, Democrats said they needed the information in order to evaluate the effectiveness of the IRS audit.
A Trump-appointed judge declined to rule on the merits of the case, but after Joe Biden assumed control of the White House, the government reversed its position, and U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden agreed the committee should get what it asked for.
Through his private attorneys, Trump asked an appeals court to block the release, saying Democrats lacked a “legitimate legislative purpose” for their request and that handing over the tax returns would infringe Trump’s constitutional rights.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled Tuesday that complying with the request wouldn’t violate the separation of powers among branches of the federal government or Trump’s rights, and that the Ways and Means Committee Democrats have a legitimate purpose regardless of whether they might also like to embarrass the president politically.
“The mere fact that individual members of Congress may have political motivations as well as legislative ones is of no moment,” Sentelle wrote. “Indeed, it is likely rare that an individual member of Congress would work for a legislative purpose without considering the political implications.”