The House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday voted 24-16 to release former president Donald Trump’s tax returns to the public, capping a protracted legal and political battle that began when Trump was in the Oval Office.
Democrats have for more than three years pushed to make Trump’s tax returns public, and the documents were finally made available to the Ways and Means Committee late last month after the Supreme Court denied a last attempt by Trump to withhold the records.
The committee meeting got underway just after 3 p.m. Tuesday and was immediately moved to a closed session to discuss Trump’s tax returns because of the confidential nature of the subject matter. For the sake of transparency, committee members voted by unanimous consent to make public a transcript of the closed session afterward.
Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, first sought to obtain six years’ worth of Trump’s tax returns in 2019, after Democrats retook the House majority. They argued that Congress needed to do so to evaluate the effectiveness of annual presidential audits and for the sake of oversight.
Trump — who broke with a decades-long tradition of presidential candidates and presidents by refusing to make his tax returns public — has for years falsely claimed that he could not release them while under “routine audit” by the Internal Revenue Service.
The New York Times in 2020 reported that Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016, when he won the presidency, and another $750 in 2017. The Times, which obtained tax data covering more than two decades, also reported that he paid no income tax in 10 of the 15 years before he ran for president.
At the time, a Trump spokesman disputed the accuracy of the Times report and said Trump had paid tens of millions of dollars in “personal taxes” to the federal government, a vague phrase that left unclear what taxes were paid. The records obtained by the Times showed that Trump had reduced his taxes by aggressively using losses to offset income, among other methods.
Those revelations followed reporting by The Washington Post and other organizations that showed Trump had paid little or no federal income taxes in the earlier years of his career. The Post wrote in its biography, “Trump Revealed,” that Trump paid no income taxes in 1978 and 1979, using tax deductions such as real estate depreciation that enabled him to claim a negative income of $3.8 million.
When 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton noted in a debate that Trump did not pay federal income taxes for those two years, Trump responded, “That makes me smart.” Then when Clinton speculated that Trump might not have paid “any federal income tax for a lot of years” — which turned out to be the case — Trump said the government would have “squandered” the money.
During his campaign for president, in which he frequently boasted that he was an extraordinarily wealthy and successful tycoon, Trump said that he would release his “beautiful” tax returns to back up his claims. But he said he would not make them public while he was being audited.
The legal battle between Trump and the Ways and Means Committee played out in the courts for years, continuing even after Trump left office. But last month, the Supreme Court cleared the way for the House committee to examine Trump’s tax returns, without stating a reason for denying Trump’s request to withhold the records.
“We knew the strength of our case, we stayed the course, followed the advice of counsel, and finally, our case has been affirmed by the highest court in the land,” Neal said in a statement then. “Since the Magna Carta, the principle of oversight has been upheld, and today is no different. This rises above politics, and the Committee will now conduct the oversight that we’ve sought for the last three and a half years.”
Trump and his Republican allies have criticized the effort to obtain his tax returns as a partisan attack, and warned that Congress making the former president’s returns public after he has left office would violate separation of powers.
“Let me be clear: Our concern is not whether the president should have made his tax returns public, as is traditional, nor about the accuracy of his tax returns,” Brady said Tuesday shortly before the Ways and Means Committee meeting began. “Our concern is that, if taken, this committee action will set a terrible precedent that unleashes a dangerous new political weapon that reaches far beyond the former president.”
Still, federal judges have consistently ruled that lawmakers established the “valid legislative purpose” required for disclosure. The Supreme Court’s decision late last month came after Trump announced he would run for president again in 2024.
In arguing against the release of the tax records, Trump’s legal team said the committee’s premise for seeking the information “has nothing to do with funding or staffing issues at the IRS and everything to do with releasing the President’s tax information to the public.”
Their filing adds: “If allowed to stand, it will undermine the separation of powers and render the office of the Presidency vulnerable to invasive information demands from political opponents in the legislative branch.”
Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee in favor of making Trump’s tax returns public have limited time to do so, with Republicans set to take control of the House — and the committee — in January.
Robert Barnes contributed to this report.