The Justice Department released a 33-page legal brief detailing the administration’s decision to deny House Democrats’ subpoena for President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
The opinion, which came out late Friday, reiterates and elaborates on the administration’s argument that lawmakers do not have a legitimate reason for seeking the filings.
Story Continued Below
Justice rejected Democrats’ contentions that they need the filings in order to vet a long-standing IRS policy of automatically auditing the president. The agency’s Office of Legal Counsel said the real reason lawmakers want them is to release them publicly, “which is not a legitimate legislative purpose.”
“While the Executive Branch should accord due deference and respect to congressional requests, Treasury was not obliged to accept the Committee’s stated purpose without question, and based on all facts and circumstances, we agreed the Committee lacked a legitimate legislative purpose for its request,” Steven Engel, assistant attorney general for the office, wrote in the brief.
A spokesperson for Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, who is leading the push for the returns, declined comment.
Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the tax-writing Finance Committee, said: “Congress has broad investigative authority and it’s not up to the administration to determine the legitimacy of congressional investigations.”
“The Trump administration decided long ago that it would not turn over the president’s tax returns and has used the Office of Legal Counsel to come up with a pretext to justify its refusal to follow the law,” Wyden noted.
They are seeking them under a 1924 law allowing the heads of Congress’ tax committees to examine anyone’s confidential tax information. Trump has defied a decades-old tradition of presidents voluntarily releasing their returns. Last week, House Democrats tweaked their chamber’s internal rules to expedite the coming lawsuit, one of a number they’re pursuing in a broader oversight fight with the administration.
In its opinion, Justice said the courts have determined that Congress’ oversight powers are not unlimited and that lawmakers must have a reason related to their official duties.
The agency rebuffed Neal’s contentions that he needs the returns to essentially audit the IRS’ audits, as part of his job overseeing the tax agency. It noted that only two years’ worth of the returns that the Massachusetts Democrat is seeking cover the period when Trump has been president. The administration also complained Democrats are not seeking any previous president’s returns.
“No one could reasonably believe that the Committee seeks six years of President Trump’s tax returns because of a newly discovered interest in legislating on the presidential-audit process,” Engel wrote. “The Committee’s request reflects the next assay in a longstanding political battle over the President’s tax returns.”