The Justice Department told the Treasury Department that it “must” turn over former President Donald Trump’s tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee, which first requested them more than two years ago.
The direction came in an opinion released Friday by the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which provides legal advice to the executive branch.
“The Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee has invoked sufficient reasons for requesting the former President’s tax information.” Under the department’s interpretation of federal law, according to the opinion, “Treasury must furnish the information to the Committee.”
The opinion was released on the same day that the House committee and the Treasury Department are expected to submit a court filing in the lawsuit that House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal brought in July 2019 seeking the tax returns. According to previous filings in the case, lawmakers and the Biden administration have been in discussion for several months as to how to move forward in the litigation.
“As I have maintained for years, the Committee’s case is very strong and the law is on our side. I am glad that the Department of Justice agrees and that we can move forward,” Neal said in a statement to CNN.
The OLC opinion indicated that the House committee had again submitted with the Treasury Department a request for the returns in June of this year. That request, obtained by CNN, shows that the committee had shifted the scope of its investigation since it had originally requested the returns, with a new interest in understanding the “business entanglements” of the former president and how the IRS’ presidential audit program handled them.
The House panel now say tax returns could “reveal hidden business entanglements raising tax law and other issues, including conflicts of interest, affecting proper execution of the former President’s responsibilities.”
“An independent investigation might also show foreign financial influences on former President Trump that could inform relevant congressional legislation,” the new request said. It also shifted forward the years of returns the committee was seeking, to cover Trump’s time in office more squarely. The new request seeks the returns between 2015 and 2020.
It is unclear whether Trump, who has intervened in the case in his personal capacity, will continue to fight the release of the returns in court. A lawyer for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At Trump’s request earlier this year, the judge ordered that the Treasury Department give the former President a three-days heads up if it intends to hand over the returns, so that he could consider whether he would like to take legal action to stop the agency.
The Treasury Department declined to comment.
DOJ’s shift in position is victory for the House as it continues to investigate the former President and his administration.
“Access to former President Trump’s tax returns is a matter of national security,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “The American people deserve to know the facts of his troubling conflicts of interest and undermining of our security and democracy as President.”
Reversal of opinion
Under Trump, DOJ’s Office of Legal Counsel cast doubt on whether the lawmakers had a legitimate legislative purpose in making the request.
The new opinion said that the previous administration got it wrong. “In evaluating whether the information sought in the April 2019 Request could serve such a purpose, however, the 2019 Opinion failed to afford the Committee the respect due to a coordinate branch of government,” the new opinion says.
Neal initially requested Trump’s tax returns from Treasury and the IRS in April 2019 using a little-known section of the US tax code that allows chairmen of both Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees to request the tax returns of any American. Neal argued he made his request to learn more about the Presidential Audit program, which automatically reviews the taxes of any sitting President and Vice President.
But when the Trump administration rebuffed the request, Neal subpoenaed the records. The subpoena was ignored and in July 2019, the House filed suit.
The litigation dragged on for months and then stalled out entirely in early January 2020, when the judge – Trump-appointee Trevor McFadden – put the proceedings on hold while a federal appeals court considered a separate case, concerning the House’s subpoena of former White House counsel Don McGahn for testimony.
While that case was resolved earlier this year with an agreement for McGahn’s testimony, the legal waiting game for Trump’s tax returns continued after Biden was inaugurated, as discussions between the House and the administration about a resolution dragged out for months, according to court filings.
Biden’s Justice Department has a mixed record on where it has sought to reverse Trump-era DOJ positions that protected the former President.
On the one hand, the DOJ, under Biden, is continuing to argue that it should be allowed to substitute itself for Trump as a defendant in a defamation lawsuit brought by E. Jean Carroll, a woman who was smeared by Trump when she claimed that he had raped her. On the other hand, the department recently indicated it would allow former officials to testify in the House investigation into the January 6 insurrection.
This story has been updated with additional details.
CNN’s Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.