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WASHINGTON — Lawyers for former President Donald Trump urged a federal judge late Tuesday to block the Treasury Department and the IRS from giving his tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee.
Trump's taxes have long been the Democrats' "white whale," the lawyers said.
The reason given by the committee chairman, Rep. Richard Neal, for seeking the returns, to examine how the IRS audits presidents, is simply a pretext for wanting to search for something embarrassing, they told the federal judge.
The committee sued the Treasury Department when it refused to hand over the returns during the Trump administration. But the Biden administration changed positions and agreed to provide the returns, so the committee sought to dismiss the lawsuit. Trump and his companies then intervened, seeking to block the release.
"No one believes that Chairman Neal requested President Trump's tax returns so he can study legislation about IRS audits. No one. Chairman Neal admits that this justification was a mere litigation strategy. His fellow Committee-Members don't buy it either," the former president's lawyers said.
"Anyone who's paid even minimal attention to American politics understands what's happening here: President Trump did not voluntarily disclose his tax returns during the campaign, his political opponents assume the information would damage him, and so his opponents want to force the disclosure."
The IRS has a long-standing policy requiring audits of a president's tax returns, to relieve its employees of having to decide when such an examination was appropriate. In asking for Trump's returns, the Ways and Means Committee said it was "concerned about whether the IRS had the resources and safeguards to audit the returns of Mr. Trump and similar future presidents effectively."
The committee said it also wanted to see if the audits were performed independently, without any improper attempts to influence them. It invoked a federal law that requires the Treasury Department and the IRS to turn over an individual's tax returns when demanded by any of the three congressional tax code-writing committees.
Trump's lawyers argued Tuesday that the federal law is unconstitutional, because the Constitution doesn't give Congress that kind of open-ended authority to seek information. They also said he is entitled to the same legal protections he had while in office.
"The committee's request is effectively a request to a sitting president: it was issued while President Trump was in office, was continuously pursued, and has always been tied to his status as president."
Lawyers for the House have said the committee's need for the returns is genuine but that as a purely legal matter, the federal courts have no power to examine the motives of Congress to determine whether its acts are valid under the Constitution.
As for Trump's claims of privilege, the committee said those apply only to a sitting president's records in response to a subpoena. This request, by contrast, is authorized by a specific federal law, and the standards adopted by that ruling do not apply to a former president's records.
The Ways and Means Committee first asked for the returns in 2019. The Trump administration Treasury Department refused, and the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel backed up the decision, concluding that the request was invalid.
But under the Biden administration, the Treasury Department and the IRS said the returns should be turned over, and a new Justice Department legal analysis said the earlier conclusion failed to give a coordinate branch of government the "respect and deference" it was due.
U.S. District Court Judge Trevor McFadden for the District of Columbia has scheduled a hearing on the dispute Nov. 16.