Trump Judge Rules Trump Taxes Can Go to Neal’s Desk…
Slowly but surely the various branches of the United States government are lining up behind the disclosure of Donald Trump’s tax returns. On Tuesday, Judge Trevor McFadden, a federal judge in Washington, dismissed Trump and his various corporate entities’ claims that sought to keep his tax documents from the House Ways & Means Committee.
McFadden found that the Committee’s chairman, Springfield Congressman Richard Neal, had the authority to make the request. Neal had cleared the bar of showing the request served a legitimate legislative purpose, essential for valid congressional information requests. While McFadden proviso-ed his opinion to death, it was a compete victory for Neal.
“[E]ven if the former President is right on the facts, he is wrong on the law,” McFadden wrote, dismissing the case. “A long line of Supreme Court cases requires great deference to facially valid congressional inquiries. Even the special solicitude accorded former Presidents does not alter the outcome.”
The case was in an odd posture. After Democrats took control of the House of Representatives and Neal became chairman of Ways & Means, they began a process to request Trump’s returns. The foundation of these requests was a Jazz Age law that, while recodified since, commands the Treasury Department to turn over tax returns to Congress’s tax-writing committees. Ways & Means holds this brief in the House.
The Trump administration refused to comply, leading to this lawsuit. The one-time Fifth Avenue resident and his various corporate alter-egos intervened in the case. After President Joe Biden took office, the executive branch switched sides and, following a fresh request from Neal, agreed to turn over the documents. The case beat on as individual and incorporated Trumps fought to stop the transfer of records to the Committee.
Amid other litigation arising from Congress and the New York County District Attorney’s office to secure Trump records, the Ways & Means case languished. But now, the Trump intervening parties failed to persuade the (ironically) Trump-appointed McFadden. His decision came after he seemed conflicted during a hearing last month.
“This ruling is no surprise, the law is clearly on the Committee’s side,” Neal said in a statement. “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.”
While Neal is correct, McFadden did hem and haw, if performatively, throughout his ruling. What doomed Trump’s case, the judge found, was that Congress has an incredibly low burden to establish a legislative purpose while conducting investigations.
“The problem for Intervenors is the low bar that the Committee must clear,” McFadden wrote. “It is not a court’s ‘function’ to invalidate a congressional investigation that serves a legislative purpose.”
This served as the lynchpin of the court’s ruling. Without a legitimate legislative purpose, Neal’s claim would fall apart according to McFadden. For example, Congress cannot act in a way outside its authority as the legislature. That is, it could not investigate as the executive would or make decisions about whom to audit.
At the center of Neal’s request for Trump’s tax returns—initially five the five tax years before 2019 and later amended to the five years before 2021—was review of the Internal Revenue Service’s presidential audit program, which dates to the 1970’s. McFadden indicated that Congress might not be able to pass a law mandating such reviews. But he said it could fund them or provide “safeguards” and “guardrails” to them.
The judge also interrogated whether the entire endeavors was merely to expose and embarrass Trump. However easy that may be, the intervenors cited numerous Democrats’ comments calling for unearthing Trump’s long-mysterious and probably questionable 1040’s.
McFadden dismissed these examples, however. Unlike subpoenas from Congressional committees, this law vested Neal with singular requesting authority. The judge also considered Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comments. Yet, he did not find anything from either vitiated the legitimate legislative intent of Neal’s request.
Beyond these central points, the decision meditated on the separation of powers and parsed both recent and Watergate-era Supreme Court jurisprudence. While McFadden said a review of the strain and impact on presidential power was warranted, this process did not undermine the prerogatives of Neal and the Committee.
Fundamentally, Trump’s eviction from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue meant he had a far weaker case for withholding the records. Private citizenhood robbed him of deference accorded a president that allows him to do his job.
After beating through a few desperate constitutional claims based on the First Amendment and due process, McFadden concluded. He ended his opinion with an admonition against publishing Trump’s tax records, noting the rarity of seeking specific individuals returns. Still, McFadden acknowledged it was not his decision to make.
“It might not be right or wise to publish the returns, but it is the Chairman’s right to do so,” he said.
While the judge ruled for the Committee, he stayed his ruling to allow the parties of Trump to appeal. The stay encourages the parties to agree to next steps, but an appeal seems all but certain.
That is Trump’s right to do so. Still, the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has never been a friendly audience for Trump. Last week, a panel from the Court ruled that Trump could not block the National Archives from turning over records from January 6th to the Committee investigating the riot at the Capitol that day.