The Justice Department said in a legal opinion issued on Friday that the Treasury Department must turn over six years of former President Donald Trump’s tax returns to House investigators, potentially paving the way for their eventual release to Congress and the public.
The 39-page opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel dealt a severe legal blow to Mr. Trump’s years-long campaign to keep his tax returns hidden, reversing a Trump administration position that had shielded the documents from Congress.
Rejecting that viewpoint, the Biden administration opinion stated that the House Ways and Means Committee’s initial request for tax information in 2019 was legitimate and that the Treasury Department had no valid grounds to refuse it.
“The chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has invoked sufficient reasons for requesting the former president’s tax information,” the opinion said. “Treasury must furnish the information to the committee.”
Democrats on Capitol Hill hailed the decision as a victory for congressional oversight powers and national security, saying they were investigating the Internal Revenue Service’s presidential audit program and Trump’s conflicts of interest. After the Trump Treasury Department objected, the House filed a lawsuit to enforce the request, and the case is still ongoing.
“The American people deserve to know the facts of his troubling conflicts of interest and undermining of our security and democracy as president,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
Nonetheless, the situation is far from resolved.
Officials in the Biden administration said the Treasury Department intended to follow the legal opinion and would soon notify the courts that it had reached an agreement to hand over the documents to the House, removing a major impediment.
Trump could still file a lawsuit to have a judge in the case block their transfer.
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That could take months or even years to iron out.
Moreover, the development does not necessarily imply that Trump’s tax information will be made public right away.
Rules governing the sharing of sensitive tax information with the Ways and Means Committee require the panel to hold formal votes if it wants to share any of the information with the rest of the House or the public, or even include it in a public committee report.
“As I have maintained for years, the committee’s case is very strong and the law is on our side,” Representative Richard E. Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts and chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement. “I am glad that the Department of Justice agrees and that we can move forward.”
On Friday, Trump’s personal lawyer, Ronald Fischetti, did not immediately respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. When reached by phone, Mr. Fischetti’s legal partner, Phyllis A. Malgieri, said, “Knowing him for 32 years, the Italian in him, I’m sure he would have something to say” about the decision.
Republicans on Capitol Hill slammed the decision as “politically motivated,” warning that it could usher in a new era of political warfare in which politicians rifled through their political opponents’ tax returns.
“If politicians in Congress can demand, and ultimately make public, the president’s private tax returns, what stops them from doing the same to others they view as a political enemy? ” said Texas Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House tax-writing committee.
Trump, on the other hand, was an outlier in his refusal to release the tax documents publicly as a candidate or as president.
The Justice Department’s decision came more than a year after the Supreme Court ruled that Trump’s tax returns had to be shared with the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which had requested them as part of a criminal investigation into the Trump Organization.
Last year, decades of Trump’s tax information were obtained and analyzed, revealing that the former president had gone years without paying federal income taxes and had reported hundreds of millions of dollars in business losses.
The information sought by the House, on the other hand, would most likely provide a more comprehensive view of his complex financial dealings.