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Trump lawyers press judge to block Congress from getting his tax returns

The federal judge, a Trump appointee, said he would rule within two to three weeks.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump in the East Room of the White House on July 7, 2020.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Lawyers for former President Donald Trump argued Tuesday that a federal judge should not dismiss a lawsuit seeking to block the Treasury Department and the IRS from giving his tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Trump's attorneys said during more than three hours of courtroom arguments that the reason given by committee Chair Richard Neal, D-Mass., for seeking the returns — to examine how the IRS audits presidents — is simply a pretext for searching for something embarrassing.

U.S. District Judge Trevor McFadden said he was struggling with that issue. "The Trump parties have amassed a lot of statements, even from Chairman Neal, that you could take to suggest there's something else going on."

But lawyers for the House said that the committee's need for the returns is genuine and that federal courts have no power to examine the motives of Congress to determine whether its actions seeking information are proper under the Constitution.

"The committee had a valid reason to look at the IRS program for auditing presidential returns and considering whether it should be required by a statute," said Douglas Letter, representing the Ways and Means Committee.

The committee sued the Treasury Department during the Trump administration when it refused to hand over the tax returns. But the Biden administration took a different stance and agreed to provide them, prompting the committee to seek to dismiss the lawsuit because it was no longer at odds with the Treasury Department.

Trump and his companies then intervened, seeking to block release and keep the lawsuit alive.

The IRS has a long-standing policy requiring audits of a president's tax returns to relieve its employees of having to decide when such examinations are appropriate. In asking for Trump's returns, the Ways and Means Committee said it was "concerned about whether the IRS had the resources and safeguards to audit the returns of Mr. Trump and similar future presidents effectively."

The committee said it also wanted to see whether the audits were performed independently, without any improper attempts to influence them. It invoked a federal law that requires the Treasury Department and the IRS to turn over a person's tax returns when requested by any of the three designated congressional tax-writing committees.

Trump's lawyers also told the judge Tuesday that previous court rulings involving congressional efforts to get records from Trump's accountants limited the kind of information Congress can seek. But Letter said the rulings applied only to a sitting president's records in response to subpoenas.

This request, by contrast, was authorized by a specific federal law, and the standards adopted by that ruling do not apply to a former president's records, he said.

McFadden, a Trump appointee, said he was inclined to agree with the House on that point. "My instinct is that case is a bad fit because he's no longer president."

The Ways and Means Committee first asked for the tax returns in 2019. The Treasury Department refused, and the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel backed up the decision, concluding that the request was invalid. During the Biden administration, Treasury and the IRS said the returns would be turned over, and a new Justice Department legal analysis said the earlier conclusion failed to give a coordinate branch of government the "respect and deference" it was due.

McFadden said Tuesday that he would issue a ruling within two to three weeks. James Gilligan, a Justice Department lawyer, said the government would give Trump's lawyers 72 hours' notice before it turns over any documents in the event Trump loses.