A committee in the United States House of Representatives has voted to publicly release years of tax returns obtained from former President Donald Trump, capping a years-long legal and political battle that started when he was in the White House.
The Ways and Means Committee, a body responsible for overseeing tax-related issues, voted 24-16 in a closed-door session on Tuesday, in what was seen as the last opportunity for the Democrat-led panel to broach the issue.
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A summary of Trump’s tax returns between 2015 and 2021 – when he was running for president and serving in the White House – will be partially redacted and released within days, said the committee’s chairman Richard Neal, a Democrat from Massachusetts.
The House of Representatives is set to shift to Republican control in January, following November’s midterm elections. Republicans have denounced Tuesday’s vote as partisan.
“We worry this will unleash a cycle of political retribution in Congress,” said Texas’s Kevin Brady, the leading Republican on the committee, in the lead-up to the vote.
It will also lead to further scrutiny of Trump, who recently announced his intentions to run for another term as president in 2024.
At stake were six years of tax returns for the former president and some of his business, part of a three-year-long political fight over the documents.
The committee had initially requested the tax returns in 2019, as part of an investigation into then-President Trump’s tax compliance and the audit programme run by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).
Title 26 of the US Code decrees that the US Treasury Department “shall furnish” the committee with “any return or return information” it requests.
But the Treasury Department at the time refused to release Trump’s tax records. And Trump had previously claimed he could not disclose the documents, as he was under an IRS audit.
However, the committee found that the IRS did not follow its own rules when it failed to audit Trump’s tax returns during three of his four years in office.
While its report indicated that the Trump administration may have disregarded an IRS requirement dating back to 1977 that mandates audits of a president’s tax filings, the IRS only began to audit Trump’s 2016 tax filings on April 3, 2019, more than two years into his presidency and just months after Democrats took control of the House.
There was no suggestion that Trump sought to directly influence the IRS or discourage the agency from reviewing his tax information. But the report found that the audit process was “dormant, at best”.
Trump’s decision not to release his tax records marked a significant break in bipartisan tradition, dating back to the 1970s, when major presidential candidates like Jimmy Carter started to publish their tax returns.
In 2020, Trump lost his bid for a second consecutive term as president, and the incoming administration of Democrat Joe Biden signalled its support for the Ways and Means Committee’s ability to review any taxpayer’s returns, including the president’s.
To stop that from happening, Trump took his fight to the courts, arguing he was the subject of a politically motivated attack. But lower courts sided with the committee, asserting that it had broad authority to obtain tax documents.
The Trump legal team responded with an emergency motion to stop the release. On November 1, Chief Justice John Roberts announced that the US Supreme Court would temporarily pause the documents’ handover, as the court considered the arguments surrounding the case.
On November 22, the Supreme Court lifted the freeze without noting any dissent, allowing the committee to access the tax records.
Neal, the committee chairman, applauded the decision, calling it a victory for government oversight.
“We knew the strength of our case, we stayed the course, followed the advice of counsel, and finally, our case has been affirmed by the highest court in the land,” Neal said in a statement. “This rises above politics, and the Committee will now conduct the oversight that we’ve sought for the last three and a half years.”
The committee’s investigation is one of several involving Trump’s business dealings. New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit in September 2022 against Trump and the Trump Organization, alleging financial fraud.
In 2021, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance obtained eight years of Trump’s tax filings as part of a criminal investigation into the former president and his namesake organisation.
Vance’s team had issued a subpoena for the records 18 months prior, but Trump’s legal team sought to use presidential immunity to block the investigation, which looked into alleged falsification of business records and tax fraud, among other purported crimes.
On December 6 of this year, Vance’s successor, Alvin Bragg, secured a guilty verdict against the Trump Organization for conducting a 15-year-long criminal scheme to defraud tax authorities. Trump himself was not charged in the case.
Neither that case, nor Vance’s investigation, resulted in the publication of Trump’s tax records. But the New York Times newspaper did obtain decades of personal and corporate tax records for the former president.
It published its findings in a Pulitzer Prize-winning report in 2018, followed by a second report in 2020. The paper did not publish the documents themselves in order to protect its anonymous sources, “who have taken enormous personal risks to help inform the public”.
The 2020 reporting revealed that Trump paid only $750 in federal income tax in both 2016 and 2017, and no income taxes in 10 of the last 15 years, after claiming millions of dollars in losses.
Trump denied the Times’ findings, saying, “It’s fake news, it’s totally fake news. Made up. Fake.”
Neal described the Times’ reporting as a reflection of the inequality in US society and called for his committee to continue its pursuit of Trump’s tax records.
“This reporting shines a stark light on the vastly different experience people with power and influence have when interacting with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) than the average American taxpayer does,” Neal said in a statement at the time.
“It appears that the President has gamed the tax code to his advantage and used legal fights to delay or avoid paying what he owes.”
Trump continues to be the subject of a separate Justice Department probe into his handling of classified documents.
The House committee investigating the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, also recommended criminal charges on Monday against the former president, though its recommendations are not legally binding.