Arguably the longest-running arc in the darkly comic story that is Donald Trump’s presidency involves Trump’s tax returns. Trump broke with long-established precedent during the 2016 campaign by refusing to release his tax returns – at various points, he claimed that he was either on the verge of releasing them or unable to because they were under IRS audit (there is no law that says an individual under audit cannot share his returns with other people). These returns have long been the subject of intense fascination, and even brief glimpses at the President’s taxation history have revealed troubling facts about Trump’s financial maneuvering.
The Trump Administration has been engaged in a fierce fight with Democrats over the President’s tax returns since the party seized the majority in the 2018 midterms. In May, the House Ways and Means Committee officially requested several years of the President’s returns, citing a federal law that clearly states that the Treasury Secretary must provide any citizen’s returns upon receiving a request from the committee chair. However, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin refused, and the issue is now being litigated in federal court.
As part of that suit, lawyers for the Ways and Means committee have told the judge hearing the case that they received a complaint from an IRS whistleblower alleging “inappropriate efforts” to influence a routine IRS audit of the President.
The lawyers actually filed their legal brief in August, well before the country first heard of a different whistleblower’s allegations that Trump had inappropriately asked the President of Ukraine to provide damaging information about former Vice President Joe Biden and his son. With Congress in the midst of an official impeachment inquiry related to the Ukraine controversy, it’s unlikely that the President’s tax returns will return to the headlines. But it’s worth keeping an eye on the story, if only to remember the full extent of the President’s troubling behavior.
The Whistleblower Controversy
The intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint is dominating the national conversation followed a very specific, legally proscribed path, which was necessary due to the heightened sensitivity of intelligence and national security matters.
In the case of the President’s tax returns, the IRS whistleblower went straight to Congress, notifying staffers from the Ways and Means Committee. Under existing policy, the IRS routinely audits the President’s and Vice President’s tax returns every year (these audits are independent of any Congressional investigation).
Lawyers for the committee notified US District Judge Trevor McFadden of the whistleblower’s allegations in a legal brief. The brief didn’t offer many details of the whistleblower’s claims, only saying that the whistleblower had offered evidence of “possible misconduct” related to the routine IRS audit. They offered McFadden, a Trump appointee, the opportunity to hear more details in private. So far, McFadden has not taken the committee up on the offer.
Committee lawyers have argued that the whistleblower’s allegations are profoundly relevant to the case. The lawsuit filed by the committee in response to the Treasury Department’s stonewalling claims that the chairman’s request for Trump’s tax returns furthers a legitimate legislative interest – namely, assessing the effectiveness of IRS audits. If the whistleblower’s claims are accurate, they would speak directly to the core question of the case.
A Question of Strategy
The Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is Massachusetts Democrat Richard Neal, who’s been in Congress since the 90’s. Neal, generally not the kind of Congressman who enjoys partisan knife fights, has pursued a cautious strategy toward the President’s tax returns that has frustrated more aggressive and progressive members of the Democratic caucus.
Neal waited months after assuming the chairmanship to actually request the President’s returns, working instead to lay down a lengthy document record justifying such a request. After the Treasury Department refused that request, Neal spent more time closely consulting with House lawyers before filing a lawsuit.
And in the case of the IRS whistleblower, Neal has again played a conservative game. While California Congressman Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, immediately went public with news of the intelligence community whistleblower’s complaint, Neal opted instead for a more legalistic approach, keeping the whistleblower’s complaint within the context of the committee’s lawsuit. Neal has refused to discuss that complaint with the press, citing advice from House lawyers.
And when New York passed a law allowing some federal lawmakers access to Trump’s state tax returns, Neal refused to take advantage, arguing that it would make his committee’s effort appear “partisan.”
Neal’s approach is beginning to wear thin with some Democrats. He is facing a primary challenge from Holyoke, Massachusetts Mayor Alex Morse, who is making the President’s tax returns an issue in his campaign.
Whether as a result of this pressure or because of the changing politics around impeachment, Neal has told reporters that he is considering publicly releasing the whistleblower’s complaint, pending advice from attorneys.
As Democrats move in seemingly inexorable steps toward an impeachment endgame, there are still important questions about the scope and nature of the party’s impeachment inquiry. Democrats are debating whether to keep impeachment narrowly focused on the Ukraine controversy or broadening the scope to include some of the numerous other instances of Presidential misconduct. The President’s tax returns could play an important role in that discussion. As a result, Congressman Neal, whether he likes it or not, could find himself thrust into the national spotlight.