Richard Neal’s long quest for Trump’s tax returns is finished. Now, they’ll soon be public.
WASHINGTON — After more than 3½ years of pursuit, Representative Richard Neal finally had access to Donald Trump’s tax returns, but very little time to make the most important decision of his tenure as chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee: whether to make them public.
The veteran Springfield lawmaker’s methodical effort to get the former president’s financial documents had been criticized by some of his fellow Democrats as too slow, even spurring a 2020 primary challenge. Then, after the Supreme Court cleared the way in November for the Treasury Department to release the returns to his committee, Republicans complained he was moving too fast. Neal, they charged, risked a dangerous precedent that would allow private tax information to be used as a political weapon.
Now, with just two weeks remaining before Republicans take control of the House, Neal and his Democratic colleagues on the committee voted Tuesday night to release them.
The controversial move was made to highlight what Neal said was the failure of the IRS to launch an audit of Trump until two years into his presidency. Annual audits are required under a program that Neal described as the only fail-safe when a president will not voluntarily make them public. The first audit was opened the day Neal requested the tax returns, he said, and audits for three of Trump’s years in office still haven’t been completed.
“This was never about being punitive,” Neal said after the vote of his long quest to obtain Trump’s returns. “It was never about being malicious.”
The committee voted 24-16, with all Republicans opposed, to make the returns public as supporting material for two reports on the IRS presidential audit program. The reports were set to be released Tuesday night, while six years of Trump’s tax returns would follow in the coming days after personally identifiable information was redacted, Neal said.
Before the meeting, congressional staff with a police escort rolled two carts containing boxes of material toward the hearing room. And outside the doors, Republican members of the committee stood before a sign that read “Dangerous New Political Weapon” and blasted Democrats for what they appeared poised to do.
“We urge Democrats to turn back while they still can,” said Representative Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican. “If they make private tax information public today, it will be a regrettable stain on this committee and Congress, and will make American politics even more divisive and disheartening.”
Brady, who is retiring at the end of the year, warned that Democrats were about to unleash the power “to target and make public the tax returns of private citizens, political enemies, business and labor leaders, or even the Supreme Court justices themselves.”
“No party in Congress should hold that power. It is the power to embarrass, harass, or destroy a private citizen through disclosure of their tax returns,” Brady said. “After nearly half a century, the political enemies list is back in Washington, D.C. And we worry this will unleash a cycle of political retribution in Congress.”
It’s unclear how much new information the returns contain about Trump’s finances after The New York Times published an extensive investigation in September 2020 based on more than two decades of returns for him and his companies it had obtained. The findings included that Trump paid no federal income taxes in 11 of 18 years the Times examined.
The release of his tax returns could open up more potential risk for Trump and his nascent 2024 presidential campaign, coming only hours after the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection recommended the Justice Department criminally charge him in connection to the attack.
Trump’s refusal to voluntarily release his tax returns during the 2016 campaign and then as president broke with decades of tradition and incensed Democrats. During the 2018 midterm campaign, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi declared that getting Trump’s returns would be “one of the first things we’d do” if they won the majority.
“We have to have the truth,” she said at the time, calling the information necessary as part of congressional oversight.
The responsibility fell to Neal when he took over as chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee in early 2019 after Democrats won control of the chamber.
A 1976 law, enacted after revelations that President Richard Nixon had tried to use federal tax information for political purposes, made all individual tax returns confidential by default. But federal law also had a longstanding exception for the chairs of three congressional tax committees to obtain tax returns. While there are no restrictions on the power, it is viewed as only being appropriate as part of a committee’s oversight and law-writing authority.
Neal faced intense pressure from Democrats to quickly seek Trump’s returns, with a progressive group paying for three billboards in his district calling on him to “get Trump’s taxes now.” But he moved deliberately to lay out a case for why his committee needed them because he anticipated the request would end up in the courts.
His slow pace was criticized by liberals and fueled an unsuccessful Democratic primary challenge against him in 2020. But Neal said Tuesday that he took the time to get the process right.
“The idea was to prepare the case. It’s the old story that when the cake is baked, it’s ready,” he said. Neal said he “scrupulously” followed the advice of the House general counsel Doug Letter, whom he spoke to almost weekly through the entire process.
Neal did not formally make his request until April 3, 2019, asking the IRS for Trump’s individual returns and those of several of his businesses from 2013-2018 as part of the committee’s consideration of “legislative proposals” and oversight of federal tax laws. He specifically cited the need to assess how the IRS “audits and enforces the Federal tax laws against a president.”
Republicans complained Neal and the Democrats simply were on a political fishing expedition. Trump’s Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, cited privacy concerns in rejecting the request. Neal’s committee issued subpoenas for the returns and sought a court order in July 2019 after Treasury officials continued to refuse to produce them.
The case was stalled in the courts until after President Biden took office in 2021. Neal updated his request for Trump’s tax returns to those from 2015-2020 and the Justice Department said his committee had a legal right to the returns. A federal judge agreed, ruling in December 2021 that they should be produced. Trump lost an appeal and the Supreme Court declined on Nov. 22 to block their release.
Trump blasted the decision, saying on TruthSocial that “it creates terrible precedent for future Presidents.”
But Neal hailed the move as validating his approach.
“This rises above politics, and the Committee will now conduct the oversight that we’ve sought for the last three and a half years,” he said in a statement after the Supreme Court decision.
The Treasury Department said a few days later it had complied with the court order and made the returns available to the committee. That left the matter in the hands of Neal and his fellow committee Democrats.
Republicans have said that committee Democrats have had very little time to use the returns to conduct an analysis of presidential audits and recommend legislative fixes, as was their stated purpose.
But Neal said they did. And on Tuesday night, addressing reporters in the gilded office of the Ways and Means chair he soon will have to vacate, he held up a copy of legislation he’s proposing based on the committee’s analysis of Trump’s tax returns. The bill would require the IRS to launch the audit of a president’s tax returns within 90 days of inauguration. The president would be required to submit the documents for that review and the IRS would be required to make them public.
Neal said he thinks there will be broad support for the bill from Republicans, who will control the House starting next month.
“This takes care of ending any potential confusion or chicanery as it relates to the audit program,” Neal said.
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