The Justice Department said the Treasury Department must give President Donald Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee. The move could bring to an end a years-long battle over the records, although some cautioned there are still moves that the former president could take to prevent his returns from being released just yet. And the administration has made clear it will give Trump a chance to respond. In the 39-page opinion released Friday the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) said the congressional committee “has invoked sufficient reasons for requesting the former president’s tax information,” and said that “the statute at issue here is unambiguous.” As a result, “Treasury must furnish the information to the Committee.”
The opinion marked a reversal for the Justice Department, which, under Trump, had questioned whether there was a legitimate purpose for lawmakers to be making the request. But now the Justice Department said the previous opinion was mistaken. “In evaluating whether the information sought in the April 2019 Request could serve such a purpose, however, the 2019 Opinion failed to afford the Committee the respect due to a coordinate branch of government,” notes the new opinion. House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal had filed the request for Trump’s tax returns in April 2019 and justified it by citing a section of the tax code that allows the heads of the Ways and Means as well as the Senate Finance committees to request the tax returns of any American.
Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department had said seeking the tax returns was really about politics. But Friday’s opinion said the underlying motivations were “irrelevant” to determine whether the request should be approved. “Congress is composed of elected members who stand for re-election. It is, therefore, neither unusual nor illegitimate for partisan or other political considerations to factor into Congress’s work,” the opinion reads. “If the mere presence of a political motivation were enough to disqualify a congressional request, the effect would be to deny Congress its authority to seek information—a result that is incompatible with the Constitution.”
Democrats celebrated the new opinion. “It is about damn time,” Rep. Bill Pascrell, who chairs the House ways and means subcommittee on oversight, said. “Our committee first sought Donald Trump’s tax returns on 3 April 2019 – 849 days ago. Our request was made in full accordance with the law and pursuant to Congress’s constitutional oversight powers.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi characterized the opinion as a “victory for the rule of law.”
Despite the celebratory tone of Democrats, the administration said in a court filing that it would not hand over any documents until Trump has an opportunity to figure out how to respond. And he still has options. “There is less of a probability that this is going to drag on for a long time, but it certainly could, and it’s definitely not over yet,” Michael Stern, a former senior counsel in the House of Representatives’ Office of General Counsel, tells Politico.