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How Trump won the war over his tax returns

The Supreme Court tossed out Trump's latest bid to hide his tax returns — but time is not on House Democrats' side.
Image: Former President Donald Trump  at Mar-a-Lago.
Former President Donald Trump during an election night event at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Nov. 8.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

The Supreme Court on Tuesday ended the long-running dispute over Congress’ access to former President Donald Trump’s taxes. In an unsigned order, the court denied Trump’s last-ditch effort to prevent the House Ways and Means Committee from obtaining copies of his tax returns from the IRS.

While he may have lost the battle, it looks as though Trump may have won the war over his taxes.

Trump, naturally, blasted the decision on Truth Social as Democrats pressed the Treasury Department to turn over the documents as quickly as possible. But the clock has almost expired for Democrats to actually make use of the financial information that Trump has hidden away for so long. While he may have lost the battle, it looks as though Trump may have won the war.

Back in 2016, Trump broke with the long-standing precedent of presidential nominees releasing their tax returns to show that there’s nothing shady or nefarious in their business dealings. He insisted at the time that it was because he was in the middle of an audit, a position that became less and less credible as the years passed. After Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 midterms, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., asked the IRS to provide Trump’s tax information.

A 1924 law says that Ways and Means is one of three congressional committees that can request the taxes of any individual from the IRS — even the president. The Treasury Department refused at the time, arguing that it was simply a political fishing trip to try to find something to embarrass Trump. But Neal had made clear in a statement about his initial request that there was a legislative purpose at work:

“The IRS has a policy of auditing the tax returns of all sitting presidents and vice-presidents, yet little is known about the effectiveness of this program. On behalf of the American people, the Ways and Means Committee must determine if that policy is being followed, and, if so, whether these audits are conducted fully and appropriately. In order to fairly make that determination, we must obtain President Trump’s tax returns and review whether the IRS is carrying out its responsibilities.”

House ways and means Committee Chairman RIchard neal in a 2019 Statement

After being stonewalled the rest of Trump’s term, the House sent a renewed request last year, banking on the Biden administration feeling differently about the matter. That theory proved correct: The Justice Department and Treasury both agreed that Congress should have access to Trump’s records. But then Trump turned to his favorite play: stalling for time in the courts.

On the surface, the results have been terrible for Trump. He’s lost every step of the way, from a federal judge’s ruling last December, to a federal appeals panel in August, to the full U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia Circuit in October, to his Hail Mary attempt at the Supreme Court. In not one of those rulings did any judge — even those appointed by Trump himself — find that Congress was out of line in asking for Trump’s returns.

It’s a hollow victory for Democrats, who will hand over control of the House to Republicans in January.

“The Chairman has identified a legitimate legislative purpose that it requires information to accomplish,” the appeals court panel wrote in its August ruling. “At this stage, it is not our place to delve deeper than this. The mere fact that individual members of Congress may have political motivations as well as legislative ones is of no moment. Indeed, it is likely rare that an individual member of Congress would work for a legislative purpose without considering the political implications.”

But it’s a hollow victory for Democrats, who will hand over control of the House to Republicans in January. It’s not clear how quickly the IRS will turn over the requested documents to the Ways and Means Committee. After that, there’s only weeks left to parse through the findings and determine what portions — if any — deserve being released to the public.

There’s still a narrow window for Ways and Means to actually draft a report on the IRS’s presidential audits and vote to release it to the public, along with key findings from Trump’s filings. But once it closes, that’s likely the ball game. Because while the Democratic-controlled Senate could still possibly take over the investigation, it’s not clear whether it will do so, given the deference to Neal’s efforts that Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has showed.

And it wouldn’t shock me to see Trump use the technically new request to begin the litigation process all over, resetting the clock and wasting everyone’s time — again.