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Federal appeals court says House committee can get Trump's tax returns

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Washington — A federal appeals court in Washington ruled Tuesday that the House Ways and Means Committee can obtain several years of former President Donald Trump's tax returns, a victory for House Democrats in their yearslong battle to obtain the records.

The unanimous three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the House Democrats, who initially sought five years of federal income tax returns from Trump and several of his business entities in 2019 while he was president.

Citing a renewed request for the tax information in 2021 from Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the Ways and Means panel, after the change in presidential administrations, Senior Circuit Judge David Sentelle wrote in a 33-page ruling that the request "was made in furtherance of a subject upon which legislation could be had," and rejected claims from the former president that Democrats' request for his tax information was unconstitutional.

"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," Sentelle wrote. "This is a feature of our democratic republic, not a bug."

The Ways and Means Committee celebrated the decision and said on Twitter that it expects to receive the requested returns and audit files "immediately." 

"With great patience, we followed the judicial process, and yet again, our position has been affirmed by the courts," Neal said in a statement. "I'm pleased that this long-anticipated opinion makes clear the law is on our side. When we receive the returns, we will begin our oversight of the IRS's mandatory presidential audit program."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the decision an "important victory for the rule of law."

"Access to the former president's tax returns is crucial to upholding the public interest, our national security and our Democracy," she said in a statement. "We look forward to the IRS complying with this ruling and delivering the requested documents so that Ways and Means can begin its oversight responsibilities of the mandatory presidential audit program."

Trump's legal team, however, will likely appeal the ruling either to the full D.C. Circuit or the Supreme Court.

The court fight stems from Neal's original request to the head of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) in 2019 for Trump's tax records, in which the chairman said the committee was "considering legislative proposals and conducting oversight related to" federal tax laws. Neal's request was made under a federal law that allows Congress to request the tax information of certain individuals from the IRS.

The Treasury Department declined to comply, arguing it was not supported by a legitimate legislative purpose. The committee sued the IRS and Treasury Department to force them to turn over the tax information.

But President Biden assumed the presidency while the dispute was pending, and Neal renewed his request for five years of income tax returns from Trump and his businesses beginning in 2015. In July 2021, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel said the Treasury Department must hand over the tax information, a reversal from an analysis under the Trump administration. Treasury said it intended to comply with the latest request and turn over the materials.

Again, the former president sought to block the release of his returns, arguing the requests violated the Constitution, in part because the Treasury Department was politically motivated, and Democrats lacked a valid legislative purpose. 

But a federal district court in Washington granted requests from the Treasury Department and Ways and Means committee to toss out Trump's claims, finding lawmakers' 2021 request served a legislative purpose and did not violate the Constitution. The D.C. Circuit agreed.

"The chairman has identified a legitimate legislative purpose that it requires information to accomplish. At this stage, it is not our place to delve deeper than this," Sentelle wrote. "The mere fact that individual members of Congress may have political motivations as well as legislative ones is of no moment."

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