President Donald Trump’s defeat will make it a lot easier for Democrats to finally get his tax returns, and some prominent lawmakers plan to keep the heat on the incoming Biden administration and House leaders to deliver.
Once Biden controls the Treasury Department, his administration could simply hand over the long-sought records to its allies in Congress, who have been fighting in court to force Trump to turn them over, so far unsuccessfully.
But Biden is casting himself as a moderate uniter, and releasing Trump’s returns risks looking like a vindictive investigation of his predecessor.
Not just that.
It could also prove a distraction at a time when Biden is trying to push his own legislative agenda through a narrowly divided Congress.
Yet, if Democrats were to suddenly say “never mind,” it would not only be an embarrassing about-face, it would also infuriate people such as Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), the head of the House Ways and Means Oversight Subcommittee.
“In a perfect world, we could have mercy — but this is not a perfect world,” said Pascrell, who has helped lead the push to spring Trump’s returns. “Even if he is no longer the president, there needs to be some accountability.”
“We have got to follow through on this.”
With Trump making noises about running again in 2024, moreover, Democrats may be loath to abandon the option.
Biden has not said how he would approach the issue, and a spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
Democrats have been in court for more than a year, suing to enforce a subpoena for Trump’s documents under a 1924 law allowing the heads of Congress’s tax committees to see anyone’s returns.
The Trump administration has refused, arguing Democrats do not have a legitimate reason for seeking the filings. The case has not even gotten to the substance of House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal’s complaints though, with the two sides battling over whether he even has the right to bring the White House to court in the first place.
Separately, several House committees and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. also are tied up in court trying to get Trump’s tax returns and other financial records from his banks and an accounting firm for different investigations.
But Biden’s Treasury secretary could give the returns to Neal without anyone outside the government even knowing. In August, as Neal was fighting to stave off a primary challenge, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would release the president’s records if Biden won.
“Then the world will see what the president has been hiding all this time,” she said.
In an email, a Neal spokesperson said he remains focused on his court case.
Some aren’t convinced Democrats will continue to press the issue next year because, by then, the politics of releasing Trump’s returns could be very different.
He will be a private citizen again, already facing major investigations by the New York state government. It may not only look like Democrats are piling on by forcibly releasing Trump’s tax records — it would also be highly unusual.
Though he has defied a decades-old tradition of presidents releasing their records, Trump is not legally required to produce them and Congress has only released private tax information about anyone on extremely rare occasions.
It could also mean a lot of work for Democrats.
They have a long list of questions about Trump’s finances and have requested a huge amount of information about his taxes. But investigating them would be a major undertaking, and it’s unclear if that’s how Democrats want to spend a good part of Biden’s first year in office.
“It would not surprise me if they decided the goals of the Biden administration would not be furthered by pursuing this,” said Jim Wetzler, a former congressional tax aide and one-time New York state tax commissioner.
But many Democrats have long complained Neal has not been aggressive enough in his pursuit of the president. They say they still want to know plenty more about Trump’s finances than was disclosed in recent reports by The New York Times, which were based on leaked tax return information.
And they argue they still don’t understand how vigorously the IRS examined Trump’s returns as part of its annual, legally required audits of the president.
“Americans need to know that all taxpayers who are audited by the IRS get the same partial review — no one is above the law,” said Pascrell.
Moreover, House Democrats want to pass legislation that would require presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns, and it may look odd to push that if they don’t release Trump’s information.
There’s yet another possibility: Even once he’s out of office, Trump could potentially file a new suit to prevent congressional Democrats from getting his returns. He successfully sued to prevent them, at least temporarily, from taking advantage of a New York state law authorizing officials there to share Trump’s New York returns with Neal.
Though Neal has shown little interest in using that law, Trump’s lawyers argued the Massachusetts Democrat could change his mind without warning and get the president’s returns before he has a chance to act.
A federal court sided last year with Trump, saying officials had to give him an opportunity to go to court if Neal seeks the returns. Trump could potentially go back to that playbook with the Treasury Department to try to prevent it from acting on a request from Congress.
“Based on his past behavior, I’d guess, yes, he probably would sue,” said Kerry Kircher, a former general counsel for the House of Representatives.
“It’s what he does.”
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