House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) made the request Wednesday.
“It is critical to ensure the accountability of our government and elected officials,” Neal said. “To maintain trust in our democracy, the American people must be assured that their government is operating properly, as laws intend.”
In a letter, Neal asked the Internal Revenue Service to provide six years of Trump’s personal and business returns.
The documents could reveal details about how he makes money and how much tax he pays ― meaning they could expose conflicts of interest and possible tax dodging. His former personal lawyer Michael Cohen told Congress in February that Trump has used fraud to avoid paying taxes over the years.
The Treasury Department did not immediately comment on Neal’s request. Representatives of the department have previously said that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin would review the request “for legality.” Democrats expect Mnuchin to defy the law and fight them in court.
Some Democrats and outside experts questioned why Neal didn’t make the request as soon as Democrats took control of the House of Representatives, since federal law gives the Ways and Means chairman the explicit power to ask for any American’s private tax information. The law has existed since the 1920s as a check on corruption in the executive branch of government.
Every year, the IRS automatically audits the president’s taxes. Neal said that Congress needed to see Trump’s returns in order to make sure the IRS is carrying out its audits effectively.
“It is necessary for the Committee to determine the scope of any such examination and whether it includes a review of underlying business activities required to be reported on the individual income tax return,” Neal’s letter said.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Trump nonsensically complained that, because he is under audit, he can’t release the documents.
“I’ve been under audit for many years because the numbers are big, and I guess when you have a name, you’re audited,” Trump said. “But until such time as I’m not under audit, I would not be inclined to do it.”
Trump seemed to be recycling his campaign excuse for not releasing tax information. Either way, nothing about an audit precludes Trump or the IRS from coughing up the documents. Cohen told Congress that he didn’t think Trump’s taxes had, in fact, been under audit prior to 2017.
Polls show that most people support Democrats looking at Trump’s taxes. Making sure the president is not a tax cheat would give people more confidence that the system is fair, said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center.
“Disclosure of a president’s and vice president’s tax returns ― and the impression that others, especially public servants, are complying with their tax obligations ― would bolster the public’s faith in our tax system,” Rosenthal said in February testimony before Ways and Means, the House committee that oversees taxation.
There are also specific investigative reasons for Congress to obtain the president’s taxes.
Cohen, the president’s former personal attorney, said that Trump devalued his assets to obtain favorable tax treatment ― an act that could constitute tax fraud ― during testimony before the House oversight committee on Feb. 27. Documents previously obtained by The New York Times also showed that Trump’s wealth was built on shady tax tricks that could constitute fraud.
“Would it help for the committee to obtain federal and state tax returns from the president and his company to address that discrepancy?” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) asked Cohen.
“I believe so,” Cohen replied.
Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas), the top Republican on the committee, called Neal’s request an abuse of power, even though Republicans used the same law to obtain and disclose private tax information in 2014, when they were conducting oversight of the IRS.
If Democrats do ultimately obtain Trump’s taxes, the documents will not necessarily become public. It would be up to the committee to hold a vote to release the information, which is what Republicans did during the Obama years.
But Democrats will have to get the documents first. Tax experts say there’s no precedent for the Treasury Department to refuse to comply with a tax information request. A court battle would be similarly unprecedented, and there’s no telling how long one might take.