CNN wonders: How can a House demand for Trump’s tax returns be considered political?


Monday may be income-tax deadline day for Americans, but today’s another kind of deadline for Donald Trump. Will he allow the IRS to hand over his tax returns pursuant to a demand from House Ways and Means chair Rep. Richard Neal? Magic 8-Ball says … “YGBFKM”:

House Democrats aren’t optimistic they’ll see Trump’s tax returns Wednesday.

That’s the deadline they had given IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig to turn over six years of President Donald Trump’s personal and business tax returns to House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat.

But a week after Neal made his formal request for Trump’s tax information, including information on eight of the President’s business entities, Democrats are fully anticipating a drawn-out political and legal showdown as the administration digs in and Democrats prepare to go to court.

Going to court was the point. The chairs of a handful of congressional committees, including the House Ways and Means Committee, have the unique authority to call up any tax return for review under Section 6103 (26 USC 6103) of the tax code. Under subsection (f), Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin would be required to provide the return in response to Neal’s demand, albeit in “closed executive session” if it contained data identifying “a particular taxpayer.” Since the point in this case is to see Trump’s tax returns, Neal could only see the return in closed session and would be forbidden to publicize its contents. The only exception to that is in the “whistleblower” subsection (f)(5), where such disclosure is limited to “possible misconduct, maladministration, or taxpayer abuse,” with misconduct in this case being on the part of the IRS (hence the “whistleblower” designation) and not the taxpayer himself.

It’s clear to everyone that Neal isn’t interested in reviewing Trump’s tax returns for possible misconduct or maladministration in the IRS, nor because he suspects that the IRS has abused Trump. At least, it’s clear to everyone except CNN’s Alisyn Camerota, who seems surprised when ranking Ways and Means member Tom Reed calls Neal’s demand “political.” What can possibly be political about such a demand, Camerota wonders?

At first it seems as though Camerota’s feigning obtuseness as a Socratic interview method, a common strategy among interviewers. It doesn’t take long before one realizes that the obtuseness is genuine, or at least not feigned as a means to allow Reed to make his point. Camerota seems intent on arguing that the mere existence of Section 6103(f) strips all politics from Neal’s demand, which is ludicrous. Democrats (and some Republicans) made Trump’s tax returns a political argument even earlier than Reed notes, starting in 2015 before the first vote was cast in any primaries. Democrats have insisted on forcing Trump to reveal the returns for nakedly partisan political reasons, including to further impeachment efforts, as Reed notes here.

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Nevertheless, it’s far from clear that courts will side with Trump and Reed on their interpretation of Neal’s motives and their relation to 6103. The law explicitly gives those chairs the authority to review anyone’s tax returns, at least in closed session, as long as the committee doesn’t disclose the returns or the data within them. Since it’s clear that disclosure is what Neal wants, a court might look ahead to the obvious outcome of Neal’s intent and rule that Neal’s request is inappropriate to the restrictions on disclosure in 6103(f)(5). It seems more likely that a district court would rely on the strict text in the regulation and give the benefit of the doubt to the congressional committee chair.

Whatever ruling is handed down in district court will get appealed, so don’t expect this to get settled quickly. The point of this fight is to make the fight obvious enough so that it paints Trump as having something to hide … which was the original political argument and the argument Democrats have been making ever since.

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