Is There Anything Congress Can Do With Trump’s Tax Returns?

After three tense years, the Ways and Means Committee of Congress can finally get a hold of Donald Trump’s tax returns. But it’s still not clear if the Committee will share this information with the public.

Since Trump was elected in 2016, his tax returns should have been open to the public. Now that Congress has access to the documents, the right committees can figure out if he did anything wrong with his money and if the IRS handled it correctly. But it also lets the public and the media look at those documents, which could tell us about his finances, whether he took advantage of tax loopholes or committed financial crimes, and his financial ties to powerful people and other governments while he was in office.

Trump has tried for a long time to keep his tax returns secret, but a Supreme Court ruling in November means that the committee can look at them, despite his best efforts. A 2020 New York Times report has already made some of Trump’s tax documents public. That report showed how he messed with the tax system and how he reported his finances to pay as little tax as possible or even nothing at all.

CNN says that among the documents the committee can now look at are the former president’s business and personal tax returns from the last six years, which cover most of his time in the White House.

Since April 2019, when the committee’s chairman, Richard Neal (D-MA), asked for them, Trump has fought to keep them secret. At first, the Treasury Department said no, which led to a court battle that lasted for years.

But the committee’s goal isn’t necessarily to make Trump‘s finances public. Instead, they say they want the information to evaluate the IRS’ audit process for presidents and vice presidents, which happens every year while they’re in office.

What Is A Presidential Audit, And Why Is It Being Looked Into By The Ways And Means Committee?

It isn’t clear why Trump has gone through so much trouble to hide his tax records. But even though his most recent tax records have been made public, they might not answer the question because the Ways and Means Committee did not set out to answer it and because the records might not be made public.

Because it took the committee so long to get access to the records, it won’t be able to do a thorough review of the records before the Republicans take over the House and the committee in January.

Keith Fogg, an emeritus professor at Harvard Law School, told Vox via email that the most interesting thing about the Ways and Means Committee getting the returns is what it will say about the IRS audit of those returns. “Are the audits done at this point? How much, if anything, did he owe? Was it paid? What special steps did the IRS take to check a candidate’s or President’s tax returns?”

During the 2016 election, Trump said he was “under audit” and wouldn’t release his tax returns until that process was done. A 2020 investigation by The New York Times showed that he had been fighting for a decade over a $72.9 million tax refund he got in 2010.

Fogg said, “I think the NY Times told us most of what we know about his tax returns, and the new data will only confirm what was already known.” The committee wants to know how Trump’s tax records were looked at while he was president, not what kind of information they have.

A professor at New York University School of Law, Daniel Hemel, told Vox in an email that the president’s and vice president’s tax returns are checked every year, even if they don’t raise any red flags that might cause another taxpayer to be checked. The Internal Revenue Manual spells out how to audit these records in a way that is unique to them. They should get a quick and thorough checkup under strict security measures. Hemel said that one reason the House Ways and Means Committee is looking into this is to find out how these audits are different from audits of other returns in real life.

Hemel told Vox that the documents could also answer the question of whether the IRS handled red flags in the right way. “By looking at the returns themselves, a congressional committee could find out if there are any strange things that, in a normal audit, would need to be looked into further,” he said. “The committee could then look into whether or not the IRS did follow up on these things and what happened.” Depending on the results of the review, Congress could pass new laws to change the way the process works.

Is There Anything Congress Can Do With Trump's Tax Returns?
Is There Anything Congress Can Do With Trump’s Tax Returns?

How Could People Find Out About The Documents?

Even though the public has a right to be interested in Trump’s tax returns, they are still kept secret. Even though they belong to a public figure and former politician, they are still private documents that must be treated as such, as the Internal Revenue Manual says.

Legally, the IRS has to give returns to the Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, or the Joint Committee on Taxation if the chair of one of those committees asks for them in writing. However, that doesn’t give those committees free rein to make the returns public.

Hemel wrote in a piece for Lawfare that the three committees can, at any time, send the documents to the full House or Senate, or both, in the form of a bill or a report. This makes the information public.

The House committee is keeping the documents secret for now for political reasons. First of all, making them public would be a trick. Neal has said many times since he asked for the information in 2019 that the committee’s only goal was to look into the presidential audit procedure, not to make Trump look bad or for political reasons.

Even though the committee probably won’t (or at least probably shouldn’t, according to Hemel) release the documents to Congress and won’t finish a thorough review of the presidential audit process before January 3, when Republicans take control of the committee, there are still ways Congress could review the audit procedures and eventually release Trump’s tax documents.

Now that the highest court has ruled that Trump can’t stop congressional committees from getting his tax returns and other materials they have asked for, the Senate Finance Committee, which will still be run by Democrats, could step in and ask for the documents to do its review of the presidential audit process. Hemel said that could lead Congress to change the law if it was needed or “send the case to the Justice Department for prosecution if the facts called for it.” From there, the committee could give the documents to the whole Senate by making a referral or finding another good reason to do so.

The public probably won’t see Trump’s tax returns any time soon, given all the reasons why the Ways and Means Committee wants to see them. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or won’t ever.

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