Judge Trevor McFadden of the D.C. District Court recently ruled that former President Trump must turn his tax returns over to the House Ways and Means Committee. Trump, who no doubt would like to avoid turning his tax returns over to political rivals who want to publish them for the public to view, is likely to appeal this decision.
He should win his appeal easily.
Judge McFadden’s opinion ignores common sense about the true reason that Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., and other House Democrats want Trump’s tax returns. It has nothing to do with legislation. The committee’s wants the information for entirely political, and frankly entirely illegal, reasons — so they can leak them to the public, in a violation of Trump’s financial privacy.
In order for the Ways and Means Committee to subpoena Trump’s tax returns, the committee must have a “valid legislative purpose.” Neal claimed his legislative purpose is to evaluate the presidential audit program — an Internal Revenue Service regulation that requires the agency to audit every president’s tax returns.
Judge McFadden agreed with Neal, claiming that with the returns, Congress could legislate how many staff the IRS may assign to the audit of a sitting president, or Congress could ensure adequate funding for presidential audits if the IRS undertakes them.
That’s a poor excuse for legislative purpose. To actually determine information about the audit program, the Ways and Means Committee would have to subpoena the IRS to ask about its specific audit procedures and resources they devote to the program. The committee has not done so and has shown no desire to, because it has no real interest in the program. It is just a tool that Neal is using to lie to federal judges.
Neal’s failure to subpoena any other presidents’ tax returns signals that he has no real desire to evaluate the audit program. Neal cannot claim that Trump’s tax returns present a unique challenge for the IRS. Trump is not the first wealthy person to live in the White House. George W. Bush owned a professional baseball team before becoming president. Many other presidents have had complicated tax returns.
Chairman Admits True Purpose
But don’t take my word for it. This is something Neal and his fellow Democrats on the committee have openly admitted: Neal in a 2017 press conference said the reason for this subpoena is to give the public an opportunity to see the tax records and for “the media to sift and sort” through them. Judge McFadden also documented in his opinion that Neal later admitted the only reason he is using the presidential audit language is “to construct a case” that would stand up in court.
Judges on appeal should take Neal at his word that he has no desire to legislate on the presidential audit program and is just making up this argument for the courts. Judges simply need to use their common sense that there is no legislative purpose in subpoenaing Trump’s tax returns.
To do otherwise would undermine the judiciary, legitimate congressional subpoenas, and the IRS’s role as a nonpartisan executive agency. A reversal of this decision on appeal does not require any changes to current precedent.
Other Committee Members Reveal Real Intention
McFadden’s opinion also details multiple other members of the committee saying that they only want Trump’s tax returns to expose Trump. He calls these other opinions “irrelevant” because the committee only needs Neal’s approval of a subpoena.
The judge gets it wrong, though, because to legislate on the presidential audit program, the committee would need to approve changes or hold hearings. This makes their comments on the true motive of the subpoena relevant. On appeal, the court should evaluate all relevant committee member comments on the true motive of this subpoena. It’s just more proof that the committee’s true motive has nothing to do with making legislative changes to the audit program.
If McFadden’s decision stands, it will mean that congressmen can use the IRS as a cudgel with which to beat their political rivals. Decisions like these further damage and divide the country.