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Justice Department says IRS must give Trump's tax returns to Congress

DOJ orders IRS to release Trump tax returns
Justice Department orders IRS to release Trump tax returns to Congress 07:17

The Justice Department on Friday said the Treasury Department must hand over former President Trump's tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee, putting an apparent end to the yearslong battle over the records.

In the 39-page opinion, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) found that the committee "has invoked sufficient reasons for requesting the former President's tax information," and said that "the statute at issue here is unambiguous."

The decision is a reversal of a 2019 opinion from the same office, which was then under the direction of the Trump administration. 

The new opinion states that the previous decision, which concluded the House committee request was "disingenuous," had failed to take into account that Congress is a co-equal branch to the executive. The office now finds that the previous administration, in denying the request for the tax records, "failed to afford the Committee the respect due to a coordinate branch of government."

In April 2019, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, a Democrat, requested from the Treasury Department Mr. Trump's individual tax records and those of eight Trump-related businesses for 2013 to 2018 to examine IRS enforcement of tax laws that applied to the president. Then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asked the OLC how to respond. 

At that time, the OLC advised Mnuchin that the committee had to "demonstrate a legitimate legislative purpose" for its request, and went on to say that since Treasury had concluded that the committee's request was a "pretext" and had requested Mr. Trump's tax records "for the purpose of public release," the OLC agreed with Treasury that the request was not a legitimate one and banned Treasury from providing House Ways and Means with the tax records.

The opinion issued Friday disputed the Trump administration's determination that the committee's interest in the returns was simply a ruse to hide underlying political motivations. The OLC on Friday called the finding "irrelevant."

"Congress is composed of elected members who stand for re-election. It is, therefore, neither unusual nor illegitimate for partisan or other political considerations to factor into Congress's work," the opinion says. "If the mere presence of a political motivation were enough to disqualify a congressional request, the effect would be to deny Congress its authority to seek information — a result that is incompatible with the Constitution."

The new opinion states that the executive branch may conclude a records request from Congress lacks a legitimate legislative purpose "only in exceptional circumstances."

The Ways and Means Committee will review the former president's tax returns from the years 2015 through 2020, and investigate whether he complied with tax laws.

"As I have maintained for years, the Committee's case is very strong and the law is on our side. I am glad that the Department of Justice agrees and that we can move forward," Neal said in response to the new OLC opinion.

The review will look at several matters, including the lengths the IRS can enforce federal tax laws against the president, whether Mr. Trump's taxes could unearth "hidden" business relationships that may post conflicts of interests and whether his foreign business dealings influenced his time in office.

"Access to former President Trump's tax returns is a matter of national security," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. "The American people deserve to know the facts of his troubling conflicts of interest and undermining of our security and democracy as president."

The OLC memo contained no timetable for the turnover of the documents, but in the lawsuit that the committee filed regarding the dispute, D.C. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden issued an order in January requiring the Treasury Department to provide 72 hours' notice to Mr. Trump's counsel before releasing the tax records. The order was set to expire in February, but McFadden has been renewing the order every month. Acknowledging the OLC's memo, McFadden reissued the order on Friday, writing, "In light of the Administration's agreement, Defendants shall provide 72 hours' notice to counsel...before any release of the tax record information at issue." 

McFadden also ordered the parties to file a joint status report by Wednesday that will propose a "schedule for further proceedings." 

Mr. Trump's personal attorney, Ron Fischetti, responded in a statement Monday, "There is no evidence of any wrongdoing here and I object to the release of the returns not only on behalf of my client but on behalf of all future holders of the Office of the President of the United States.  Is no one safe?  The Democrats are doing this in an attempt to degrade Mr. Trump and it is a disgrace."

"With respect to his tax returns, the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, on a prior occasion, refused to authorize the release and ruled that the Democrats lacked a 'legitimate legislative purpose' and that it was politically motivated.  What's changed?  This has been ongoing for years.  Enough is enough," Fischetti's statement continued.

In February, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. obtained former President Trump's tax records after the Supreme Court declined to shield the secretive documents from investigators. Vance's office has been investigating the former president's business dealings in 2018, spanning from alleged hush-money payments made to women who claimed to have engaged in affairs with Mr. Trump.

Melissa Quinn contributed to this article.

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