Trump’s Tax Returns Will Finally Be Revealed. It Shouldn’t Have Taken This Long.
After a four-year odyssey, in which Donald Trump pulled every conceivable lever to evade public access to his personal tax returns, the House Ways and Means Committee voted on Tuesday to release them for years 2015 to 2020. Although the actual returns will take a few days to become public, the committee staff offered a report on Tuesday detailing “noteworthy issues” but expressing no opinion on the accuracy of the returns or whether Trump underpaid his taxes. The committee explained that it lacked “investigatory powers,” such as the ability to interview the IRS agents assigned to the audits, so a definitive word on whether Trump cheated on his taxes is not forthcoming, at least not from the committee.
In typical Trumpian fashion, the first bombshell landed even before the actual returns were made public. Earlier in the day on Tuesday, the committee’s chairman, Democratic Rep. Richard Neal, released a separate report revealing that Trump somehow slipped through IRS rules mandating an audit of his tax returns once he became president. Section 126.96.36.199.4(1) of the Internal Revenue Manual provides: “The individual tax returns for the President and the Vice President are subject to mandatory review.” But the committee’s investigation “revealed only one mandatory audit was started under the prior [i.e., Trump] Administration and the program was otherwise dormant, at best.” Accordingly, it proposes “legislation to codify the mandatory audit program and require certain disclosures” so as to bypass such shenanigans in the future. (The fact that the committee’s Democratic majority even included a draft of such proposed legislation puts the lie to the argument that the committee shouldn’t publish Trump’s returns because there isn’t time to do anything legitimately legislative before control of the House is transferred to the Republicans on January 3.)
It’s worth taking a step back to review the yearslong tax-return saga: During the 2016 campaign, Trump refused to release his tax returns, in defiance of a longstanding tradition of presidential candidates voluntarily making that information public so that voters can assess fitness for office. Unlike thousands of regular federal employees, presidents do not undergo background checks as a prerequisite to holding office. The rough-and-tumble of presidential politics gets much of the important stuff on the table anyway. But Trump managed to win the GOP nomination and the White House without ever releasing his returns.
When Democrats took control of the House in 2018, Rep. Neal became chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. In April 2019, he officially requested that the IRS produce the returns, using a provision of the tax code that was enacted after Watergate out of concern that the administration of President Richard Nixon had improperly accessed IRS tax records and audit information for certain taxpayers. (In fact, among the proposed articles of impeachment for Nixon was one alleging that he had violated taxpayers’ constitutional rights.) The Tax Reform Act of 1976 established a comprehensive scheme governing the disclosure of tax information, mandating that in general tax returns “shall be confidential” and making unauthorized disclosure a felony.
The statute included a handful of narrow exceptions, however, including one found at 26 U.S.C. § 6013(f), which allows congressional committees to request tax returns from the Treasury Department, of which the IRS is a part. Specifically, “upon written request from the chairman” of the House Ways and Means Committee or the Senate Finance Committee, the Treasury Department “shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request.” The law also allows the committee to give that information to the full House or Senate, meaning it gets placed in the Congressional Record—and thus made public.
Although this provision is rarely used, Trump lost his argument in federal court that the statute somehow does not authorize the committee to publish the returns. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene, clearing the way for the committee to finish the job it began back in 2019.
Before the committee voted on publishing Trump’s returns on Tuesday, its top Republican, Rep. Kevin Brady, warned that making the returns public could establish a “dangerous new political weapon” that could be used not only against other officials, such as Supreme Court justices, but also against regular citizens. But this kerfuffle has nothing to do with regular Americans. It is about the select few who decide to run for president. If you don’t want this to happen to you, don’t try to ascend to the highest public office in the land. It’s that simple.
Trump, for his part, repeatedly maintained that he’d release the tax returns once the mandatory IRS audit was over. Except it turns out the mandatory audit didn’t even begin until Rep. Neal made his request in 2019.
In the decision rejecting Trump’s bid to halt the committee’s effort, Judge Trevor McFadden underscored the valid legislative purpose behind its quest for Trump’s tax returns: “the Committee’s study of the Presidential Audit Program.” In September 2021, when McFadden issued the opinion, the committee argued that it had “serious concerns” about the IRS’s ability to audit a president, and that there are “gaps” in the internal IRS program that “require Congress to act through legislation.” But now, in light of information revealed in yesterday’s report, those gaps look downright sinister.
In April 2019, when the committee first made its formal request to the IRS for Trump’s tax returns, Charles Rettig was IRS commissioner and Steve Mnuchin was Treasury secretary. Rettig was later criticized for not disclosing during his Senate confirmation hearings that he owned two rental properties at the Trump International Waikiki resort, which he bought in 2006, and from which he reportedly earned $100,000-200,000 per year while he was Trump’s appointed IRS commissioner. The property licensed the Trump brand name (the Trump Organization itself did not develop it). In 2016, Trump received 10 percent of all pre-sales.
Rettig told House lawmakers in 2019 that it was his decision, under Mnuchin’s supervision, not to comply with the committee’s request for Trump’s tax returns, on the rationale that it “lacks a legitimate legislative purpose.” The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington complained in 2020 that “the IRS Commissioner has a vested interest in the success of the Trump brand—and of preventing anything that could damage it . . . if a bombshell in [Trump’s] tax returns were released.”
We now know Rettig didn’t begin the mandatory IRS audit until the committee exercised what he considered “illegitimate” legislative authority to seek the returns in 2019—over two years after Trump assumed office and six months after Rettig was confirmed as IRS commissioner. In 2016, prior to his nomination, Rettig wrote an op-ed in Forbes defending Trump’s refusal to release his returns during the campaign.
The committee’s summary reveals that Trump paid $0 in taxes in 2020, much like he paid $0 in 10 of the previous 15 years, as the New York Times revealed in a blockbuster article in 2020. When asked about that in 2020, NPR reported that Rettig “insist[ed] his agency is not turning a blind eye to rich people who pay little or nothing in taxes.” That’s “absolutely false,” Rettig said. “For taxpayers who have more than $10 million in total positive income per year, we audit at the rate of 8.16 percent.” During Rettig’s tenure, both James Comey and his one-time deputy, Andrew McCabe—whom Trump called a “slimeball” and “treasonous,” respectively—were audited, although the Treasury inspector general for tax administration later concluded they were chosen randomly.
Although Neal loses his chairmanship of Ways and Means in January, control of the Senate Finance Committee will remain in the hands of Democrats. Scheduling a chat with Rettig might be a good idea once the new Congress convenes.