The Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for a congressional committee to examine Donald Trump’s tax returns, denying without comment the former president’s last-ditch effort to extend a legal battle that has consumed Congress and the courts for years.
Supreme Court clears way for Trump tax returns to go to Congress
There were no recorded dissents and, as is often the case in emergency applications, the court did not state a reason for denying Trump’s request to withhold the records.
Lawmakers have said they need Trump’s tax returns from his time in office, plus the year before his term and the year after for comparison, to help evaluate the effectiveness of annual presidential audits. Trump has argued that Democratic lawmakers are on a fishing expedition designed to embarrass him politically.
“It has been 1,329 days since our committee sought Donald Trump’s tax returns — almost as long as the American Civil War,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on oversight. “And for 1,329 days, our request made under law has been delayed, obfuscated and blocked by Donald Trump and his adjutants in the government and the courts. … The Supreme Court is right to keep its nose out of this case.”
Trump responded to the decision early Wednesday morning by denouncing the court — three of whose justices he appointed — as a political body that has lost respect.
“Why would anybody be surprised that the Supreme Court has ruled against me, they always do!” Trump wrote at 1:14 a.m. on TruthSocial, the online platform he founded. Trump said the court’s decision not to block the release of the tax returns “creates terrible precedent for future Presidents . . . The Supreme Court has lost its honor, prestige, and standing, & has become nothing more than a political body, with our Country paying the price.”
The court decision immediately touched off a scramble on Capitol Hill, and speculation about whether the records Trump has so vigorously guarded would at some point become public. It was unclear when the Treasury Department will turn over the documents — a spokesman said only that the department would comply. But time is not on the side of Democrats who run the committee, who will cede control to Republicans in January as a result of the recent midterm elections.
House General Counsel Douglas N. Letter had told the justices that “delaying Treasury from providing the requested tax information would leave the Committee and Congress as a whole little or no time to complete their legislative work during this Congress, which is quickly approaching its end.”
Generally, it is unlawful for the government to release tax documents about an individual taxpayer. Eventually, though, the House committee may be able to release key information about Trump’s returns under the mandatory presidential audit program, according to a Democratic aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations. That release could take the form of a report or other findings, which the committee could make public after holding a vote, the aide said.
In the Senate, where Democrats will retain the majority next year, party lawmakers could still try to seek access to Trump’s tax records, though how and when is unclear. “The Finance Committee is reviewing its options,” a spokeswoman said.
The Republican lawmaker who may become chairman of the House committee, Rep. Vern Buchanan (Fla.), blasted the pending release of the records, saying in a statement that “Democrats’ relentless pursuit of President Trump’s tax records is nothing more than a partisan attack on a political opponent that serves no legitimate or legislative purpose.”
In a statement, outgoing Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the Supreme Court ruling “upholds our Democracy, the rule of law and the Congress’ ability to execute its legislative and oversight responsibilities. Now, the Congress must enact legislation requiring Presidents and candidates for President to disclose their tax returns.”
Trump’s lawyers had told the court that changes in control of the House was all the more reason to block the release of the records. “The Congress has only a few days left on its legislative calendar,” lawyer Cameron T. Norris said in his filing. “Though a few days is enough time to improperly expose the most sensitive documents of its chief political rival, it’s not enough time to properly study, draft, debate, or pass legislation.”
Last month, the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit declined to review earlier rulings finding that lawmakers are entitled to the documents in the long-running legal battle. That court also refused to put the release of the papers on hold while Trump’s lawyers sought Supreme Court review.
But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the justice designated to hear emergency orders from that court, stopped the release Nov. 1, requesting more briefing and giving the high court more time to act. Tuesday’s action dissolved that order.
The Supreme Court generally has been unreceptive to assertions from Trump — who is again running for president — that he should be allowed to keep records private and that he was immune to investigation while in office. The justices in 2020 upheld Congress’s right to subpoena that information as long as certain conditions were met; last year they declined to block the release of Trump’s financial records to New York state investigators.
Trump has nominated a third of the justices, and their 6-to-3 conservative supermajority has resulted in one of the most conservative Supreme Courts in decades. But his nominees have uniformly ruled against him in requests regarding his finances and attempts to withhold documents from congressional investigators.
In arguing against the release of the tax records, Trump’s legal team said the committee’s premise for seeking the information “has nothing to do with funding or staffing issues at the IRS and everything to do with releasing the President’s tax information to the public.”
Their filing adds: “If allowed to stand, it will undermine the separation of powers and render the office of the Presidency vulnerable to invasive information demands from political opponents in the legislative branch. Review is of the utmost importance, and the Court should preserve its ability to grant it — not just for one ‘particular President,’ but also for ‘the Presidency itself.’”
The references to a “particular President” and “the Presidency itself” are from a previous Supreme Court ruling involving the president’s authority over immigration. But this litigation is unique because Trump defied modern tradition for presidential candidates and occupants of the Oval Office by refusing to make his tax returns public.
Several advisers to Trump said he always grew angry at congressional attempts to see his tax returns and was distrustful of the IRS. “They want to screw me,” Trump said, according to these advisers, though they said he used a more profane word.
Democrats began the legal battle to get the tax returns after taking the House majority in 2019.
Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar, representing the Biden administration, told the Supreme Court that even if there were political elements to the congressional committee’s request, the judicial branch should not get involved.
“Throughout our Nation’s history, congressional requests for information have been driven by mixed legislative and political motives,” she told the court in a filing. “But time and again, this Court has rejected attempts to invalidate otherwise appropriate legislative requests based on evidence of additional motives.”
She said lower courts evaluated the committee’s request in line with the standards set by the Supreme Court in Trump v. Mazars, the 2020 decision that sided with Congress in Trump’s attempt to block release of his tax records.
“This Court’s longstanding precedent forecloses applicants’ attempt to have the courts look behind the request’s stated legislative purpose to the subjective motives of individual legislators,” she wrote. “Under the particular circumstances of this case, the Chairman’s request for applicants’ tax information is both within the Committee’s authority and consistent with the separation of powers.”
Prelogar said the judges in the lower courts took different approaches in finding there was no separation of powers violation in the committee’s request, “but all of them reached the same conclusion — and none of them regarded the case as particularly close.”
Although the case has taken years to move through the courts, those judges have consistently ruled that lawmakers established the “valid legislative purpose” required for disclosure.
The appellate court said Trump’s status as a former president figured into its decision; since all previous presidents going back decades had voluntarily released their tax returns, the request was “minimally intrusive.” But the court found that even if Trump were still president, the request would not violate the separation of powers. The court was unmoved by Trump’s argument that his tax returns might become public.
“Congressional investigations sometimes expose the private information of the entities, organizations, and individuals that they investigate,” the panel wrote. “This does not make them overly burdensome. It is the nature of the investigative and legislative processes.”
It also dismissed concerns that allowing the request would inflame tensions between Congress and the president — or a former president.
“While it is possible that Congress may attempt to threaten the sitting President with an invasive request after leaving office, every President takes office knowing that he will be subject to the same laws as all other citizens upon leaving office,” the court’s order said. “This is a feature of our democratic republic, not a bug.”
The case is Trump v. Committee on Ways and Means.
Tony Romm and Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.