There was never a moment’s doubt about the actual legality of the situation. The Internal Revenue Code instructs the Department of the Treasury to hang onto tax returns. It also provides that the House Ways and Means Committee or the Senate Finance Committee can ask for anyone’s tax forms “upon the written request from the chairman.” That request came all the way back in April 2019. It’s just that the DOJ under Bill Barr simply failed. Instead, they assisted Donald Trump in making every possible dodge and appeal in an effort to avoid the plain letter of the law.
That ended on Friday when the Office of Legal Counsel produced an order instruction Treasury to pony up Trump’s tax forms.
The original 2019 ruling from the OLC protected Trump through a twisted set of logic that admitted that the committee chair was entitled to everything requested, but inserted the DOJ in the role of arbiter who got to decide if a request needed to be followed. The OLC simply stated that, “No one could reasonably believe that the Committee seeks six years of President Trump’s tax returns because of a newly discovered interest in legislating on the presidential-audit process.” It didn’t bother to offer any proof of this claim. It didn’t bother to explain how the DOJ suddenly got a role in overruling something that was written into law in plain terms. It just … did it. And then it went on to criticize the House for not seeking other documents that the DOJ decided were better for finding out what the committee wanted to know than the actual documents the committee requested. Because under Trump, the OLC was omniscient.
But the new ruling makes it clear that whatever powers of second sight the department claimed in the past, those walked out the door with Barr. Instead, the committee gets to do its job, as the law states.
“We cannot know where receipt of the requested tax information will take the Committee, any more than the Committee itself can predict what it will find or determine. After reviewing and analyzing the information, it will be squarely within the Committee’s responsibility to decide whether or not to include some of that information in a report to the full House that might be available to the public, “
The request from the Ways and Means Committee was originally described as a test of the president audit program. As CNN explained back in 2017, the president always gets audited. So does the vice president. There is a "mandatory examination" of their returns that is supposed to be done quickly with “expeditious handling at all levels to ensure prompt completion of the examinations.” So when Trump kept claiming his returns were under audit, there were two issues. One is that every White House resident has been under audit every year, and that hadn’t stopped the release of every tax form for decades leading up to Trump. The second is that the return is supposed to be done quickly. Trump’s apparently never-ending audits were more than enough reason for Ways and Means chair Richard Neal to check in and see that things are running as they should be.
What the committee will do with Trump’s returns after they’ve taken a look at the auditing process is unclear. As the DOJ stated, some of the information could be in future public reports. Or not.
Back in September of 2020, The New York Times obtained some of Trump’s tax returns and found that they showed “struggling properties,” “vast write-offs,” and “hundreds of millions in debt coming due.” They also revealed that Trump’s total tax bill in 2016 was just $750, and that 10 of the previous 15 years Trump paid no income tax at all. Those returns also showed that Trump was still caught up in an argument with the IRS over a return he had filed a decade earlier. In that return, he had claimed enormous losses and been handed a $72.9 million tax refund. But the IRS was challenging that refund, and the potential existed then—and may still exist now—for Trump to end up owing over $100 million. That long-running battle also seems like a good reason for the House committee to check in on how that audit process is working.
In February 2021, eight years worth of Trump’s tax returns were subpoenaed by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. Trump appealed, but lost in district court, and Vance ordered Trump’s accountants to hand over the paperwork. Vance originally opened his investigation by looking into payments made by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen to two women Trump wanted to keep quiet during the run-up to the election. It’s not clear how far that investigation extends now.