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Judge refuses to block Congress from seeing Trump’s tax returns

A Trump-appointed federal judge dismissed the former president's lawsuit to stop the Treasury from turning over the records.

(CN) — A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by former President Donald Trump, which attempted to prevent the IRS and Treasury Department from giving his tax returns to a congressional committee.

In a 45-page opinion tossing out Trump’s case, U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled that a “long line of Supreme Court cases requires great deference” to “facially valid” congressional inquiries.

The judge was unconvinced by arguments from the former president’s attorneys that a request by the chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means for his tax returns lacks a valid legislative purpose or is unconstitutional. The committee must view the documents in a closed session, but has the power to vote to make some or all of the records public.

“Even if the former President is right on the facts, he is wrong on the law,” McFadden, who was appointed by Trump, wrote. “Even the special solicitude accorded former Presidents does not alter the outcome.”

Trump had also argued that the request violates the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government, even though he is no longer a sitting president.

The former president broke with decades of tradition by refusing to make his tax returns public during his campaign for the presidency in 2015. He has fought in court to keep those records out of the hands of lawmakers, arguing that Democrats are harassing him for the information to benefit their own political careers.

The judge ruled that the committee identified a legitimate legislative purpose behind its request: its study of the Presidential Audit Program.

IRS procedures since 1977 have required an audit of a sitting president’s tax returns.

The judge found that the records requested by the committee will help it carry out its investigation of the IRS’s ability to audit a president with complex business holdings.

According to the ruling, the committee said in its request that it has “’serious concerns’ about the IRS’s ability to audit a President” and worries that the program “is not advancing the purpose for which it was created.”

McFadden ruled that the committee has demonstrated Trump’s information “will uniquely aid its legislative efforts” and might help show whether the auditing program “sufficiently accounts for a President who, like Trump, controls hundreds of businesses and typically files ‘inordinately large and complex’ tax returns.”

U.S. Representative Richard Neal, a Democrat and the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, praised McFadden’s decision in a statement Tuesday evening.

“This ruling is no surprise, the law is clearly on the committee’s side,” Neal said. “I am pleased that we’re now one step closer to being able to conduct more thorough oversight of the IRS’s mandatory presidential audit program.”

Neal previously requested Trump’s tax returns in 2019 under a federal law that gives the committee chairman authority to request any person’s tax returns. But the effort stalled after the Treasury denied the request based on the Trump administration’s belief that lawmakers lacked a legitimate purpose for obtaining the records.

After President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Department of Justice issued an opinion in July finding that Democrats had “invoked sufficient reasons” for requesting the tax returns in 2019 and in June of this year.

The IRS’s auditing process is opaque. Individual auditors have significant discretion over a presidential audit. McFadden ruled that releasing the files on Trump’s audit “would show how IRS auditors use that discretion. And the tax returns themselves would allow the committee to see how those audits materialized.”

McFadden expressed reservations about whether the tax returns should ever be made public.

"If Chairman Neal’s true interest in the former President’s tax returns is indeed to better understand the Presidential Audit Program, he will doubtless be able to accomplish this objective without publishing the returns. Public disclosure of another’s tax returns is a grave offense, and prior committee chairmen have wisely resisted using § 6103(f) to publicize individuals’ returns."

But the judge acknowledged that the decision is ultimately up to lawmakers.

“Anyone can see that publishing confidential tax information of a political rival is the type of move that will return to plague the inventor. It might not be right or wise to publish the returns, but it is the chairman’s right to do so,” the judge wrote. “Congress has granted him this extraordinary power, and courts are loath to second guess congressional motives or duly enacted statutes.”

McFadden put the opinion on hold for 14 days, giving Trump the chance to file an all-but-guaranteed appeal.

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