Justice Department says Trump's tax returns should be released

The Justice Department on Friday said the Treasury Department must turn over former President TrumpDonald TrumpKinzinger says Trump 'winning' because so many Republicans 'have remained silent' Our remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Far-right rally draws small crowd, large police presence at Capitol MORE’s long-sought tax returns to the Democratic-led House Ways and Means Committee.

In a memo from the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), acting Assistant Attorney General Dawn Johnsen said the Treasury Department was required to defer to the congressional committee.

“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 the 39-page memo.

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If the committee receives Trump's tax returns, it can examine the documents in a closed session. It could then vote to release a report to the full House, making some or all of the documents public.

House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard NealRichard Edmund NealWant a clean energy future? Look to the tax code Democrats brace for toughest stretch yet with Biden agenda The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by National Industries for the Blind - What do Manchin and Sinema want? MORE (D-Mass.) first requested Trump’s personal and business tax returns, and related IRS documents, in 2019. He also subpoenaed former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnunchin and the head of the IRS to secure their release.

The Trump administration refused to comply with the request and subpoenas, prompting the committee to file a lawsuit.

The OLC memo comes on the same day that a court filing is due in the lawsuit. The committee and the Biden administration had been having discussions for several months about the case and said in a filing earlier this month that they would tell the court by July 30 whether they had reached an agreement.

The OLC memo notes that in June, Neal sent Treasury an updated request for Trump’s tax returns, with the new request seeking documents for 2015 to 2020 as opposed to 2013 to 2018 in the initial request.

The new request reiterates that the committee wants Trump’s tax returns to examine how the IRS audits presidents, and also states that lawmakers are interested in potential business entanglements and foreign influences on Trump as they consider future legislation.

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“Applying the proper degree of deference due the Committee, we believe that there is ample basis to conclude that its June 2021 Request for former President Trump’s tax information would further the Committee’s principal stated objective of assessing the IRS’s presidential audit program—a plainly legitimate area for congressional inquiry and possible legislation,” Johnsen wrote.

Reporting from The New York Times last year, after obtaining tax return data for the president over two decades, found that Trump paid no income taxes in 10 of the 15 past years and only paid $750 in taxes in both 2016 and 2017.

The Times also found a 2010 tax refund of $72.9 million was under audit by the IRS. Trump has long pointed to his audit by the IRS to claim he is unable to release his tax returns, a departure with long-standing precedent for presidential candidates.

The Friday memo is a reversal from the Justice Department's conclusions under the Trump administration, which advised Treasury that Neal’s request lacked a legitimate legislative purpose.

Then-OLC head Steven A. Engel called the Ways and Means investigation “a pretext, and that the Committee ha[d] requested the ... information for the purpose of public release— which we agree is not a legitimate legislative purpose.” 

The DOJ memo from the Biden administration says that the opinion issued during the Trump administration was incorrect “in suggesting that the Executive Branch should closely scrutinize the Committee’s stated justifications for its requests in a manner that failed to accord the respect and deference due a coordinate branch of government.”

Neal praised the Biden administration’s memo.

“As I have maintained for years, the Committee’s case is very strong and the law is on our side,” he said in a statement. “I am glad that the Department of Justice agrees and that we can move forward.”

The Biden administration’s opinion does not spell the end for the litigation over the Trump tax return request.

Trump is participating in the court case over the tax-return request in his personal capacity, and his lawyers have expressed an interest in having their arguments heard in court before the former president’s tax returns are turned over to the Ways and Means Committee.

Judge Trevor McFadden, a federal judge in Washington D.C., appointed by Trump, has ordered the Biden administration to give Trump’s lawyers 72 hours notice before giving any of the former president’s tax returns to the committee. That order is currently set to expire Aug. 3.

Democratic lawmakers applauded the turnaround from the Justice Department, which enables a line of inquiry long blocked by prior department leaders.

“Today, the Biden Administration has delivered a victory for the rule of law, as it respects the public interest by complying with Chairman Neal’s request for Donald Trump’s tax returns. As Speaker, on behalf of the House of Representatives, I applaud Chairman Neal for his dignified pursuit of the truth and the Biden Administration Department of Justice for its respect for the law,” House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiRepublicans caught in California's recall trap Raise the debt limit while starting to fix the budget   'Justice for J6' organizer calls on demonstrators to respect law enforcement MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement.

“Access to former President Trump’s tax returns is a matter of national security. The American people deserve to know the facts of his troubling conflicts of interest and undermining of our security and democracy as president.”

Updated: 2:22 p.m.