The suit over President Donald Trump’s taxes is the latest development in an escalating battle between Congress and Trump, who has vowed to fight “all the subpoenas” looking into his administration and personal finances. Trump is the first modern president not to voluntarily disclose his tax returns.
Trump has claimed executive privilege to block the release of the unredacted report issued by special counsel Robert Mueller and its underlying evidence. He asserted “testimonial immunity” for former White House counsel Don McGahn to not testify. And he sued the House Oversight and Reform Committee to stop its subpoenas of financial information from his accounting firm and bank.
Those last lawsuits filed by Trump in his personal capacity to halt disclosures from Mazars USA LLP, his accounting firm, and Deutsche Bank and Capital One, his former lenders, have already showed that the president is fighting a losing battle.
The district court judges ruling on the two separate cases came to the same conclusion: that Trump’s legal argument that Congress has no legitimate legislative interest in pursuing documents from Mazars, Deutsche Bank and Capital One holds no water. Both judges affirmed Congress’ broad right to subpoena documents for investigative purposes that could lead to legislative action.
“Put simply, the power of Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process,” Judge Edgardo Ramos said in his opinion on the Deutsche Bank and Capital One subpoenas on Thursday.
These rulings, now on appeal, were embarrassing defeats for the president and contain arguments that will likely be restated in the tax return case. That’s because the Treasury Department made the same legal argument to deny the committee the president’s tax returns as Trump’s personal lawyers made in the Mazars and Deutsche Bank cases ― that the requesting congressional committee has no legitimate legislative interest in pursuing the documents.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her allies in the Democratic Party have pointed to the victories as evidence that regular oversight works and Democrats don’t yet need to escalate to impeachment proceedings against the president. The only problem is that enforcing subpoenas through the courts can take a long time.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has not yet filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration for blocking subpoenas for testimony from McGahn, former White House deputy counsel Anne Donaldson and former White House communications director Hope Hicks. Nadler did ultimately strike a deal with the Department of Justice for access to the unredacted Mueller Report and some of the underlying evidence.
One key difference between the tax return subpoena and the others is that in the tax case Democrats are trying to force the administration to comply with a federal law that explicitly gives the chairs of congressional tax committees access to private tax returns. House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) asked for six years of Trump’s personal and business returns, only to be rebuffed by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
Mnuchin argued that the request represents an unprecedented abuse of power, since Democrats want the private tax information of a political enemy. But Republicans themselves have used tax disclosure against their political enemies in recent years.
Some of Neal’s Democratic colleagues questioned his decision to wait until April to make the initial request, but the lawsuit to enforce the subsequent subpoena is the first case Democrats themselves have taken to court.
Time is of the essence because past congressional efforts to enforce subpoenas have taken years. The legal victories in the Mazars and Deutsche Bank cases are subject to appeal, and it will be many months ― at the soonest ― before any documents are turned over.