Why Congress — and the American People — Deserve to See Trump’s Tax Returns

By MOLLY CLAFLIN and AUSTIN EVERS
American Oversight

Two years into his presidency and nearly four years after beginning his campaign, President Donald Trump’s refusal to disclose the source of his considerable real-estate income to the very people who pay his salary — the American people — is an affront to accountability and a serious obstacle to both congressional and public oversight.

Trump has claimed that his taxes have been “under audit” for the past four years, though the IRS itself has said this wouldn’t restrict the president from releasing his tax returns. Trump appears to have limited arguments available to him, essentially accusing his opponents, once again, of a purely political “witch hunt.”

But Congress’s recent requests for Trump’s returns show that the U.S. system of checks and balances is working: a co-equal branch of government is acting to constrain a potentially out-of-control presidency, and ultimately may seek recourse from the third branch — the courts — to restore constitutional balance. While Congress has the constitutional authority to conduct executive branch oversight — and the congressional committees that have asked to see Trump’s tax returns have clear legal grounds for their requests — the American people have a strong argument for seeing the returns, too.

Congress’s Demands

Two House committees have asked to see Trump’s tax returns. On April 4, Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal requested them from the IRS under a provision of the tax code that permits tax-writing committees to request information on any tax filer. In response, Trump’s personal attorney sent a letter to Treasury outlining several high-level arguments against disclosure, though none grappled with the clear statutory text giving Neal the right to obtain specific returns.

Trump’s attorney argued that Congress lacked a “legitimate purpose” in requesting the tax returns. In fact, Neal did articulate a legitimate purpose in his letter: Not only does the law explicitly instruct Treasury to provide the Ways and Means Committee with any returns it demands, the committee’s responsibilities clearly include oversight of our highest officials’ compliance with federal tax laws. Such responsibilities likely outweigh any privacy interest, just as all of our top officials are required to file annual financial disclosures. Treasury missed Neal’s initial deadline and said it would confer with the Justice Department, and Neal has now given Treasury until April 23, with an implied threat of litigation.

Last Friday, Oversight and Reform Committee Chair Elijah Cummings sent a request to the Trump Organization’s accounting firm for several years of returns. Unlike Neal’s reliance on a statute, Cummings is relying exclusively on Congress’s oversight powers to obtain the information. Cummings has also outlined several legitimate purposes for his requests, including the possibility that Trump’s tax returns contain evidence of financial crimes. The tax firm has not responded, but Trump’s lawyers have already instructed it not to comply. If it fails to turn over the returns, it should prepare for potential litigation.

Trump, both through the Treasury Department and in his personal capacity, has refused to comply with the requests, which are both backed by clear rationale. The White House’s argument for obstructing congressional access — essentially that Trump should be above the law — undermines our constitutional system. As the Supreme Court has said, “It is unquestionably the duty of all citizens to cooperate with Congress in its efforts to obtain the facts needed for intelligent legislative action. It is their unremitting obligation to respond to subpoenas.”

The Public’s Right to Know

Trump’s argument against sharing his returns with Congress is an extension of his original position: that the public (specifically, voters) should not be allowed to see his returns. While Congress has a stronger claim to access them and may decide against publishing them wholesale (for example, to protect outside entities or private bank information), the public’s claim is also strong.

The law on which Neal’s request is based contains a provision for disclosing tax return information to the full House (and the public) if it has a legitimate purpose consistent with Congress’s constitutional responsibilities. Neal of course cannot judge whether such a legitimate purpose exists until he examines the returns, but as of now it appears one exists: oversight of the executive branch, and of the executive himself.

This would not be a case of what the Supreme Court has described as illegitimate “exposure for the sake of exposure.” While the bar for publicly disclosing the tax returns of a private individual may be high, it is less so for our commander-in-chief. The American people have a right to know who is working for them — and whether their elected officials are working for other interests as well. The president has no right to secret sources of income or to private deals, nor does he have the right to conceal evidence of tax fraud. The public deserves a president who can withstand an audit.

These concerns are even more acute for Trump, who has refused to divest from his many business interests. His properties around the world, from Uruguay to the United Arab Emirates, offer an unparalleled opportunity for those interests to affect policy. Foreign and domestic companies hoping to garner favor with Trump could offer business to Trump companies in exchange for favorable policies, such as tariff exemptions. The public deserves to know how much money he is receiving from foreign interests, which may signal Emoluments Clause violations and could leave him open to bribery, and to know how his wallet is impacted by federal policies, from trade regulations to environmental laws to the tax overhaul. If the 2017 Republican tax law that Trump signed significantly lowered his own tax bill, we should hear about it.

Americans have reason to be concerned about Trump’s tax bill — he’s stiffed them before. In October 2018, the New York Times reported on how Trump made hundreds of millions by participating in tax schemes while defrauding the public. These schemes cannot be criminally charged today, but the American public should know if their president is continuing these practices. There is precedent for this: In 1974, the Joint Committee on Taxation, after determining it was in the public interest to do so, released a 1,000-page report detailing how President Richard Nixon had underpaid his taxes by nearly $500,000.

Trump’s tax returns may also provide evidence of other criminal wrongdoing. Former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen testified before Congress in February that Trump personally directed hush money payments to women he had affairs with in the leadup to the 2016 election, in violation of campaign-finance laws, and said that the returns may contain evidence of additional crimes.

Disclosure of Trump’s tax returns would reveal a significant amount of information the American public needs to see to ensure their president is working for them and not for personal financial interests, is not defrauding the public tax coffers, and has not committed any crimes. There are no more legitimate purposes than that.

The fight over Trump’s taxes is just getting started. We may see litigation by not one, but two different congressional committees. The Ways and Means Committee has a very strong case to obtain the records based on law, and both committees have strong oversight claims based in the Constitution. Once Congress has the information, it will have to judge for itself the scope of what is appropriate to make public, but the American people also have a strong case for seeing the returns for themselves — to ensure the president is working for them, and only for them.

Part of Investigation:

Related Blog Posts

June 17, 2019

More Evidence of Chao’s Preferential Treatment of Kentucky-Specific Requests

Congress, Department of Transportation
Investigation Update
June 14, 2019

News Roundup: The Trump Administration and the Hatch Act

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Internal Revenue Service, Office of Government Ethics, Office of Special Counsel, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
News
May 31, 2019

News Roundup: Elaine Chao’s Stocks, Trump’s Handwritten Notes, and the Administration’s Communications with the NRA

Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Small Business Administration
News
May 3, 2019

News Roundup: Above the Law

Congress, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, General Services Administration, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
News
May 3, 2019

New Evidence of Emoluments Violations Prompts American Oversight Lawsuit

Department of Justice, Department of State
Investigation Update
May 1, 2019

The Imperial Presidency and the End of Congressional Oversight

Congress, White House
News
April 30, 2019

American Oversight Sues HUD for Communications Related to Sale of Trump-Tied Housing Complex

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
April 29, 2019

The Dangers of Constitutional Hardball

Congress, Department of Justice, White House
News
April 18, 2019

A Guide to Barr’s Redactions to the Mueller Report

Department of Justice
News
April 15, 2019

Barr Must Give Congress Mueller’s Investigative Work, Not Just His Report

Congress, Department of Justice
News
April 12, 2019

News Roundup: DeVos, Mnuchin, Barr Testify in Congress

Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Congress, Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of State, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Environmental Protection Agency
News
April 5, 2019

News Roundup: Turning to the Courts

Congress, Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Housing Finance Agency, Food and Drug Administration, General Services Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Management and Budget, White House
News
April 3, 2019

The Trump Administration’s Disrespect for Constitutional Checks and Balances Earns It Congressional Subpoenas

Congress, White House
News
April 3, 2019

What Congressional Subpoena Power Means for Oversight

Congress, White House
News
March 29, 2019

News Roundup: The Mueller Investigation Is Over, But the Swamp Is Thriving

News
March 27, 2019

Closing the Corruption-Breeding Loopholes the Trump Administration Has Exploited

Congress, Office of Government Ethics
News
March 25, 2019

The Corruption Continues: Mueller Has Finished His Work. American Oversight Has Not.

News
March 22, 2019

News Roundup: Same Old Stories

News
March 13, 2019

Two Years of American Oversight

News
March 12, 2019

Investigating the Trump Administration’s Efforts to Sell Nuclear Technology to Saudi Arabia

Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, International Trade Administration, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
News
March 8, 2019

News Roundup: Lawsuits Against Departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Health and Human Services

News
March 7, 2019

New Lawsuit Seeks Records of Agribusiness Influence on USDA School Nutrition Standards

Department of Agriculture
Investigation Update
March 4, 2019

FBI Headquarters Investigation: Agencies Refusing to Search for Records of Trump Interference to Protect Hotel

Investigation Update
February 28, 2019

At Least Fourteen Federal Agencies Have Created No Guidance for Spending Taxpayer Money at Trump Properties

Investigation Update
February 28, 2019

The Complicated World of Wilbur Ross’ Finances

Department of Commerce
News
February 27, 2019

Lying to Congress Rarely Results in Charges — Until Now. Here’s How Others in Trump’s Circle Could Be in Trouble

News
February 22, 2019

News Roundup: Wilbur Ross’ Uncertified Financial Disclosures

News
February 8, 2019

News Roundup: The First Real Confrontation Between the Trump Administration and Congressional Oversight

News
February 7, 2019

Open Questions for Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker

News
February 7, 2019

What to Know If Whitaker Tries to Assert Executive Privilege

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
February 5, 2019

Lawsuit: Why Did Government-Run Site Attached to Trump Hotel Stay Open During the Shutdown?

General Services Administration, National Park Service
Investigation Update
February 1, 2019

Congressional Oversight 2019: Calendar of Committee Hearings

News
January 25, 2019

News Roundup: Shutdown Ends Before Hearings Begin

News
January 19, 2019

Republicans’ Threats to Boycott Congressional Investigation Jeopardize Their Own Credibility — Not the Investigation’s

News
January 18, 2019

News Roundup: Two Troubling Inspector General Reports

Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, General Services Administration
News
January 17, 2019

Investigating Trump’s Failed Response to Hurricanes in Puerto Rico

Federal Emergency Management Agency
Investigation Update
January 16, 2019

William Barr and Bar Rules: How Trump’s Nominee Could Be Disqualified from Overseeing Mueller Investigation

News
January 10, 2019

Acting AG Whitaker Can’t Avoid Congress Much Longer

Department of Justice
News
January 9, 2019

Investigating the Acting Defense Secretary’s Ties to Boeing

Department of Defense
News
January 4, 2019

News Roundup: New Year, New Congress, More Oversight

News
January 3, 2019

Government Site Attached to Trump Hotel Stays Open Despite Shutdown and We Want to Know Why

News
January 3, 2019

Amplifying Oversight in 2019 — Starting Today

News
December 27, 2018

Countdown to Oversight in 2019

News
December 21, 2018

News Round-up: Ghosts of Special Counsel Investigations Past and Present

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
News
December 20, 2018

Betsy DeVos’ Delayed Financial Disclosures Heighten Accountability Concerns

Department of Education
News
December 15, 2018

Statement on Ryan Zinke’s Departure from Interior Department

Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
December 10, 2018

Wait, There’s More: News of Another Administration Official Using Personal Email

Environmental Protection Agency
News
November 21, 2018

OSC Opens Whitaker Case File in Response to American Oversight Request

Department of Justice, Office of Government Ethics, Office of Special Counsel
Investigation Update
November 19, 2018

Ivanka Trump Email Investigation Sparked by American Oversight FOIAs

Department of Commerce, Department of Education, Department of Labor, Department of the Treasury, Small Business Administration
Investigation Update
November 8, 2018

American Oversight Sues State Department for Trump Organization, Kushner Companies Records

Department of State
Investigation Update
October 23, 2018

New Lawsuit Seeks Details of White House, Trump Organization Involvement in FBI Headquarters Decision

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
May 3, 2018

Court Rules in Favor of American Oversight in Trump Hotel Lawsuit

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
April 17, 2018

Lawsuit Seeks Scott Pruitt and Nino Perrotta Travel and Security Spending Records

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
April 6, 2018

New: EPA Documents Show Details of Pruitt Office Renovations

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
March 16, 2018

Video: Four Strategies for Holding Trump Accountable

News
March 13, 2018

One Year of American Oversight

News
March 9, 2018

New FOIAs: Gun Control, Industry Influences, and Sanctuary Cities

News
March 9, 2018

American Oversight Sues HHS and CMS for Verma Ethics Records

Centers For Medicare and Medicaid Services, Department of Health and Human Services
News
March 6, 2018

Ethics Watchdog Sues HUD for Emails from Carson Family, Lynne Patton, Trump Organization

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
March 2, 2018

Investigation Update: Defund Trump

Investigation Update
February 27, 2018

American Oversight Sues HUD for Carson Office Renovation Records

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
February 21, 2018

American Oversight Calls for a HUD IG Investigation into Carson’s Leadership

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
February 16, 2018

Inside the Documents: Ben Carson Jr’s HUD Emails

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
February 5, 2018

Sessions, Comey, and Clinton: New FOIAs and Lawsuits Seek Answers

News
February 1, 2018

New HUD Emails Show Secretary Ben Carson’s Son Taking Role at Agency

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
January 25, 2018

American Oversight Sues GSA Over Changes to MyPillow Contract

General Services Administration
News
January 19, 2018

Inside the Documents: Ivanka’s Emails, Affirmative Action, and HUD Decisions

News
December 17, 2017

Trump Transition GSA Emails and Memorandum of Understanding

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
December 11, 2017

State Department Emails Show How Embassy Websites Promoted Mar-a-Lago

Department of State
Investigation Update
December 7, 2017

FBI Records Call Into Question Sessions’ Claims About Security Clearance Instructions

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
November 22, 2017

More Evidence Flynn Concealed Payments

Department of Defense
Investigation Update
November 16, 2017

American Oversight Statement Regarding DOI Report on Zinke Travel

Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
November 8, 2017

American Oversight Statement on Carl Icahn Investigation

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
November 8, 2017

Statement on Interference in AT&T-Time Warner Merger

Department of Justice
News
November 6, 2017

Over 50 New FOIA Requests Filed Last Week

News
November 2, 2017

Ivanka Trump Continued Using Personal Account in White House

Department of the Treasury
Investigation Update
November 2, 2017

FOIA In Action: Helping Journalists Expose Questionable Behavior By Trump’s Appointees

Department of Education, Department of Labor, Small Business Administration
News
October 27, 2017

American Oversight Calls for Investigation of Payments Made to Trump Organization

Investigation Update
October 24, 2017

Texts Show SBA Staff Tried to “Crop the Opulence” from Trump Hotel Event

Small Business Administration
Investigation Update
October 20, 2017

Congressional Russia Investigations Must be Transparent and Credible

News
October 17, 2017

5 Questions for Attorney General Sessions

Department of Justice
October 10, 2017

New Lawsuit Seeks Answers about Ben Carson’s Management of HUD

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Investigation Update
October 6, 2017

American Oversight Calls for Investigation of Manhattan DA Vance’s Failure to Investigate Fraud at Trump SoHo Development

News
October 5, 2017

Call for Ethics Investigation of Rep. Luke Messer

Office of Congressional Ethics
News
October 5, 2017

Lawsuit Seeks Records of Lolita Zinke’s Travel, Role at Department of the Interior

Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
October 3, 2017

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Calendars Show Deep Industry Connections

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
September 18, 2017

Austin Evers Discusses Trump Inaugural Funds on MSNBC

News
September 12, 2017

New Lawsuit: Did the FBI Really Advise Sessions to Omit Russian Contacts?

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
August 28, 2017

Statement on EPA IG Investigation of Pruitt Travel

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
August 4, 2017

Ethics 101: Twitter Ads Follow President Trump to Bedminster, NJ

Investigation Update
July 27, 2017

Call for OSC Investigation of Pruitt Travel to Oklahoma

Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
July 24, 2017

American Oversight Launches “Defund Trump” Investigation

Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency, General Services Administration, Office of Management and Budget, Office of Science and Technology Policy, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
Investigation Update
July 6, 2017

American Oversight Statement on Resignation of OGE Director Shaub

Office of Government Ethics
News
June 28, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Sues GSA for Trump International Hotel Lease Records

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
June 23, 2017

Francisco & the Travel Ban: What We Learned from the DOJ Documents

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
June 7, 2017

Statement on the Release of Lobbyist Ethics Waivers

Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
May 31, 2017

Investigation of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Apparent Presence at ExxonMobil Deal Signing

Department of State
Investigation Update
May 17, 2017

Watchdog Sues to Force Release of Ethics Waivers from Eight Trump Administration Agencies

Department of Agriculture, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of the Interior, Department of the Treasury, Department of Veterans Affairs, Environmental Protection Agency
Investigation Update
May 9, 2017

Watchdog Sues to Release Ethics Records of Solicitor General Nominee

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
May 5, 2017

Letter to Senator Grassley: Renew Leadership on Ethics and Transparency

Office of Government Ethics
Investigation Update
May 3, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for Investigation into Pattern of Promoting Trump Family Ventures on Government Websites

Department of State
News
April 25, 2017

American Oversight Files IG Complaint over State Department Promotion of Mar-A-Lago

Department of State
Investigation Update
April 4, 2017

10 Questions about the Border Wall that Deserve Big, Beautiful Answers

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
March 30, 2017

Analysis: Anti-Lobbying Act & Dan Scavino

White House
News
March 29, 2017

Call for GSA Inspector General to Review Trump Hotel Lease Decision

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
March 24, 2017

American Oversight Calls for Investigation of Mnuchin for “Batman” Promotion

Department of the Treasury, Office of Government Ethics
News