Donald Trump and House Democrats clash in court over access to the former president's tax returns
Trump has litigated for years to keep House Democrats from obtaining his tax records.
Appeals judges appeared skeptical of his arguments for continued secrecy around the tax returns.
A House lawyer said Trump wanted the courts to effectively supervise a congressional investigation.
A lawyer for Donald Trump urged a federal appeals court Thursday to prevent House Democrats from obtaining the former president's tax returns.
Trump went down as the first major party nominee and president in 40 years to keep his tax returns secret, and Thursday's hearing marked just the latest turn in House Democrats' yearslong pursuit of those records.
During a nearly hourlong hearing, Trump's lawyer Cameron Norris argued before a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit that House Democrats lack a legitimate legislative purpose for pursuing the tax returns and were instead looking to expose politically damaging information.
Norris raised questions about whether any such legislation could survive constitutional challenges.
"President-specific legislation is a constitutional minefield," he said, adding that "when you regulate presidents, you run into all sorts of problems."
The DC Circuit panel raised questions about how the request for the tax returns could tilt the balance of power between the White House and Congress, even though the House reissued its request after Trump left office.
House general counsel Doug Letter stressed that, while Democrats first pursued the tax returns during the past administration, they reissued the request after Trump left the White House.
"There is no doubt that, at that point, Mr. Trump was no longer the president," Letter said.
But Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson, a George H.W. Bush appointee, noted that the case had its beginnings during the Trump administration. And she appeared at one point to acknowledge the possibility that Trump would run again for president — he's flirted with doing so for months — and even return to the White House.
"We've got to look at this case as executive branch versus legislative branch, as institutions," Henderson said.
"We have a situation that involves both a sitting president and a former president," the judge added. "And for all we know, if this case drags out, he could be a sitting president again."
A long road, still no end
The court hearing marks the latest turn in a three-year legal saga.
Since first requesting Trump's tax returns in 2019, House Democrats have said they want the tax returns to assess whether the Internal Revenue Services is properly auditing tax returns and to determine if new legislation is necessary.
But Norris said even that stated legislative purpose "does not justify the significant step of involving a president."
Trump's legal team came into the DC Circuit on the heels of a setback. In December, a Trump-appointed judge dismissed the former president's bid to block the House Ways and Means Committee from obtaining his tax records.
Pushing to overturn that ruling Thursday, Norris argued that even House Democrats' stated legislative purpose "does not justify the significant step of involving a president."
A ruling against Trump, he said, would set the precedent that "once a president leaves office, it's open season — you can get every detail of his financial life, his businesses, his private taxpayer information."
Norris faced skeptical questioning, with Judge Robert Wilkins asking why House Democrats could not seek the tax returns strictly for oversight reasons.
"It can't be oversight in a vacuum," Norris said. "It has to be to study legislation that would be constitutional. And I say oversight in the vacuum because we know it can't be exposure for the sake of exposure."
A ruling for the House could result in the public learning more about Trump's finances ahead of the 2024 presidential race. The case is separate from the litigation that ended in 2020 with the Supreme Court giving the Manhattan district attorney's office access to Trump's tax records as part of a criminal inquiry.
The arguments came as the Manhattan investigation appeared to founder, with two veteran prosecutors resigning in frustration over the newly-elected district attorney's reluctance to bring criminal charges against Trump. One of the two prosecutors, Mark Pomerantz, said Trump was "guilty of numerous felony violations" and that it would be a "grave failure of justice" to not hold the former president accountable, according to a copy of his resignation letter that became public Wednesday.
On Thursday, Letter said Trump was effectively asking the courts to "actively supervise a congressional investigation," in defiance of separate Supreme Court precedent.
"We know the Supreme Court has said, 'No, that's not appropriate,'" Letter said.
Letter added that Trump's allegations of an improper motive are "completely and totally irrelevant under the test that the Supreme Court has set down."
Trump, for his part, has for years vacillated on whether to release his tax returns, and if so, when. In the end, he never released them while president. But some of Trump's past returns have leaked into the public domain, with the New York Times reporting that the former president's returns show his "finances are under stress" and that he "racks up chronic losses that he aggressively employs to avoid paying taxes."
'Right on the facts ... wrong on the law'
Under the Trump administration, the Justice Department issued a legal memo backing up Trump's bid to keep his tax returns secret. But the Justice Department reversed course in 2021, months after Trump left the White House, and said the House Ways and Means Committee had raised "sufficient reasons" for obtaining the tax returns.
In December 2021, Judge Trevor McFadden appeared to sympathize with the former president's claims that the House committee's pursuit of the tax returns was "pretextual" and disingenuous." Judge Trevor McFadden said Trump has marshaled an "array of evidence" suggesting the panel's interest in the presidential auditing program was "a subterfuge for improper motives—like exposing his returns."
But McFadden ruled that the House committee was entitled to the returns, writing that "even if the former President is right on the facts, he is wrong on the law."
"A long line of Supreme Court cases requires great deference to facially valid congressional inquiries. Even the special solicitude accorded former presidents does not alter the outcome," the judge wrote.
During Thursday's arguments, Norris acknowledged that the case between Trump and House Democrats has turned into a yearslong legal saga. Norris said Trump has faced an "onslaught" from the House that Democrats have pursued through his post-presidency.
Letter leaned into the action between Trump and the House, telling the DC Circuit panel at the outset of his arguments that he and Norris "have been arguing about any number of things recently."
"He and I just have to come up with another place that we could meet other than opposing each other in court," Letter said. "I suspect we could become good friends."
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