How Trump lost the fight over tax returns - and the clock Democrats face

FILE - Former President Donald Trump announces he is running for president for the third time as he smiles while speaking at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., Nov. 15, 2022. Trump's early announcement of his third White House bid won't shield the former president from the criminal investigations already confronting him as an ordinary citizen, leaving him legally and politically exposed as he seeks the 2024 Republican nomination. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Without comment or recorded dissent, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ended former president Donald Trump's years-long fight to shield his tax records from House Democrats, paving the way for a congressional panel to review six years' worth of federal returns and raising the possibility some of that information could become public.

The decision draws down a nearly four-year battle by the House Ways and Means Committee to obtain his personal and business records. Trump has insisted that the exercise is politically motivated and that Congress lacks the authority to request the documents. But since leaving office, he has been dealt one loss after another in his bid to keep the information private.

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In a post on Truth Social on Wednesday, Trump blasted the court's decision. "It is unprecedented to be handing over Tax Returns, & it creates terrible precedent for future Presidents," he wrote.

Trump broke with precedent when he refused as a presidential candidate, and then when elected, to release his tax returns, something every president since Richard M. Nixon has done. The explanation he gave was that he was being audited, though numerous experts have said that an audit would not have prevented him from releasing his returns.

The high court's decision comes just before Democrats, who run the committee, must cede control of the chamber to Republicans. The GOP will take over in January, based on the results of the midterm elections.

Here's what you need to know about Congress's power to get tax returns, what led to the Supreme Court's decision, and what comes next:

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Can Congress get my tax records?

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Yes. A 1924 law allows certain congressional committees to obtain tax returns from the Treasury Department, which oversees the Internal Revenue Service. The law says that the Treasury Secretary "shall furnish" the records requested by the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Committee on Finance and the Joint Committee on Taxation.

The committees can obtain the records as long as they seek them with a legitimate committee purpose.

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Can Congress get the president's tax records?

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Legally, experts say, the answer is yes. But the Trump administration, and later his lawyers, have resisted such attempts.

In April 2019, the House Ways and Means committee requested six years of Trump's personal and business tax returns. At the time, the tax information was critical to inquiries including questions over Trump's financial dealings and potential ties to foreign governments.

The Trump administration would not play ball. Then-Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin argued that House Democrats' request served no "legitimate legislative purpose" and a disclosure would violate Trump's privacy. He also said the request was "unprecedented."

Trump was able to beat back House Democrats' efforts, until Joe Biden took office in January 2021. In July of that year, the Justice Department determined that the records should, indeed, be turned over. That determination set off fierce, prolonged and ultimately unsuccessful legal challenges from Trump.

In December 2021, a federal judge rejected arguments from Trump's lawyers that the tax information couldn't be turned over, saying that Trump's case had weakened, in part, because he was no longer president. A federal appeals court panel in August similarly sided with House Democrats, and the full court later declined to reconsider its decision. This week, the Supreme Court put the matter to rest.

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Is there any precedent for this?

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In 1973, the IRS turned over President Richard M. Nixon's tax returns the same day the Joint Committee on Taxation asked for them amid questions over his income taxes.

The committee reviewed the records, finding that he owed nearly $500,000 in additional taxes over four years. The Joint Committee of Taxation voted to release a report that included Nixon's tax return information.

As the Trump administration resisted disclosure of his taxes, Democrats raised the Nixon precedent, which challenged Mnuchin's claim that Democrats' demands for the president's tax documents were unprecedented. Republicans argued that the two cases could not be compared, pointing out that Nixon requested the investigation into his tax returns, and Trump had not.

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What can happen next?

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The Treasury Department has not publicly indicated when it will turn over the tax records, only that it will comply, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, told CNN on Tuesday that the committee will get the documents "by next week."

But Democrats have only a little more than a month to review the documents before Republicans officially take control of the House.

While it's generally illegal for the government to release a person's tax documents, the House committee might be able to release certain information about Trump's returns through a report or other findings, a Democratic aide who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, told The Post on Tuesday. The committee would have to vote to make the information public, the aide said.

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The Washington Post's Robert Barnes, Jeff Stein, Isaac Stanley-Becker, Spencer S. Hsu, Devlin Barrett, Damian Paletta, Erica Werner and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.

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