The Treasury Department “must” turn over former President Donald Trump’s tax returns to the Democratic-controlled House Ways and Means Committee for its longstanding investigation, the Justice Department found on Friday.
“As I have maintained for years, the Committee’s case is very strong and the law is on our side,” the committee’s Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) wrote in a statement. “I am glad that the Department of Justice agrees and that we can move forward.”
A little more than two years ago, the House Ways and Means Committee filed a federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C., seeking to compel then-Secretary Steven Mnuchin to turn over information that lawmakers hoped would “shed light on exactly how [President Trump] and his businesses will be affected by the massive tax legislation he championed.”
In mid-2019, a Justice Department led by then-Attorney General Bill Barr told Mnuchin not to comply with Congress’s request, opining that the committee did not have a “legitimate legislative purpose.”
Protracted litigation followed, including two parallel Supreme Court battles where Trump sought to shield his financial records simultaneously from New York prosecutors and Congress. Trump’s broad claims of immunity failed in both cases, but the high court’s holding in the latter case left the congressional inquiry unresolved.
Over the ensuing period, Trump lost an election, and a new Congress assembled.
Last month on June 16, Chairman Neal sent a new written request to a new Treasury Secretary: Janet Yellen, who sought the Justice Department’s guidance from the Office of Legal Council (OLC).
For Dawn Johnsen, the acting assistant attorney general from the Office of Legal Counsel, the law was clear that she must.
“The statute at issue here is unambiguous: ‘Upon written request’ of the chairman of one of the three congressional tax committees, the Secretary ‘shall furnish’ the requested tax information to the Committee,” Johnsen wrote in a 39-page memorandum opinion.
Attorney General Merrick Garland’s Justice Department faulted its predecessor for failing to honor the separation of powers.
“In our view, the 2019 Opinion failed to give due weight to Congress’s status as a co-equal branch of government with legitimate needs for information in order to exercise its constitutional authorities,” the opinion states. “Courts generally presume that Executive and Legislative Branch officials act in good faith and in furtherance of legitimate objectives.”
The Justice Department’s guidance could spell an end to a more than two-year stalemate and set forth clear guidance for how congressional committees can scrutinize the financial records of future presidents.
Before Trump, almost every U.S. president since Richard Nixon voluntarily shared their tax returns.
The Justice Department found the committee had the discretion to release some of Trump’s financial information.
“We cannot know where receipt of the requested tax information will take the Committee, any more than the Committee itself can predict what it will find or determine,” the OLC opinion states. “After reviewing and analyzing the information, it will be squarely within the Committee’s responsibility to decide whether or not to include some of that information in a report to the full House that might be available to the public.”
The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment.
Read the OLC opinion below:
(image via Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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