House Democrats are set to release former President Donald Trump’s federal tax returns Friday morning, ushering in a charged new era of presidential oversight.
The release comes days before Republicans, who won a majority in November’s midterm elections, take control of the House and begin a series of promised investigations into President Joe Biden’s administration and his son, Hunter Biden.
The release raises the possibility of new revelations about the finances and business empire of Trump, weeks after he launched his 2024 presidential bid. Such revelations could lead to attempts at retribution from Republicans who have argued that Democrats are opening the door to the political weaponization of private personal data obtained through congressional probes.
Trump refused to release his tax returns as a candidate and as president, ending a precedent that began with former President Jimmy Carter.
The Democratic pursuit of Trump’s federal tax returns began after the party took control of the House four years ago – two years into Trump’s presidency. The House Ways and Means Committee, which voted last week to release the documents, asserted that mandatory annual audits of Trump’s taxes while he was in the White House took place only once, in 2019.
Trump’s federal tax returns will be placed into the congressional record during a routine pro forma session, a source familiar with the plans said. It follows the Ways and Means Committee’s release of a supplemental Joint Committee on Taxation report last week that detailed six years’ worth of the former president’s federal tax returns, including his claims of massive annual losses that significantly reduced his tax burden.
Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, told reporters that releasing Trump’s tax returns would amount to “a dangerous new political weapon that reaches far beyond the former president and overturns decades of privacy protections for average Americans that have existed since the Watergate reform.”
“We are unified in our concern the Democrats may today move forward with unprecedented action that will jeopardize the right of every American to be protected from political targeting by Congress,” Brady said.
Trump is already encouraging Republicans to retaliate against House Democrats by obtaining Biden’s financial records. In a campaign video released last week, he called the House Ways and Means Committee’s moves an “outrageous abuse of power” and a “deranged political witch hunt” that began when he launched his first presidential campaign in 2015.
Weeks earlier, he had ripped the Supreme Court – where conservatives hold a 6-3 majority, with three of those majority members appointed by Trump – for allowing House Democrats to obtain his tax returns.
He also suggested the private financial data of Biden, his family and other Democrats should also be made public.
“We should also get to the bottom line of how Biden, on a salary of a US senator, was able to buy one mansion after another; all these different locations,” Trump said. “When I’m president, we will expose the Washington cartel and we will make America great again.”
Biden, for his part, has voluntarily released his tax returns dating all the way back to 1998.
A long-raging battle for Trump’s tax returns
The battle over Trump’s tax returns dates back to the launch of his presidential campaign in 2015.
For decades, major presidential candidates have released their tax returns – a move that began as an effort to demonstrate transparency, offering the public glimpses at their personal wealth and sources of income.
Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump insisted that he was waiting for the completion of IRS audits to release his tax returns. Those releases never came during the campaign, and shortly after Trump took office, his former campaign manager and top White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said they never would.
“The White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns. We litigated this all through the election. People didn’t care,” Conway said on ABC’s “This Week” in January 2017.
Democrats began their pursuit of Trump’s taxes two years later, after drubbing the GOP in the 2018 midterm elections. The House Ways and Means Committee cited a probe into how the IRS performs its mandatory audits the taxes of sitting presidents as its reason for wanting Trump’s federal returns.
In a last-ditch effort to shield the release of the returns, Trump’s lawyers asked the Supreme Court to block the committee from obtaining the documents, writing in late October: “This case raises important questions about the separation of powers that will affect every future President.” But the court cleared the way for the House panel to obtain those returns the following month.
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal told reporters last week that the records show the IRS presidential audit program failed to work as intended.
“The research that was done, as it relates to the mandatory audit program, was nonexistent,” Neal said.
Trump’s third White House bid under heightened scrutiny
The release of Trump’s tax returns is one of a host of ways in which the former president faces more scrutiny of his personal and business dealings now than he did as a first-time candidate.
The Justice Department is investigating Trump’s handling of classified documents at Mar-A-Lago and his role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. The New York attorney general’s office has probed his family’s business. An investigation in Georgia is examining his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Republicans have vowed to halt congressional probes into Trump’s federal tax returns and end the select committee investigating January 6. But with Biden in the White House, the Justice Department’s investigations will continue, as will the local probes Trump faces.
Trump has not faced criminal charges. But the constant stream of revelations produced by those investigations could damage Trump’s 2024 prospects as potential rivals, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence, consider their own runs for the Republican nomination.
How much federal income tax Trump paid
Trump paid $1.1 million in federal income tax in 2018 and 2019, in stark contrast to the $750 he paid in 2017 and $0 in 2020, according to the report from the Joint Committee on Taxation
Trump’s tax bill grew substantially as his income surged in 2018 and 2019. Trump reported a $22 million capital gain in 2018 and a $9 million gain in 2019 from asset sales, sending his income into the black following years of enormous losses.
In 2015 and 2016, Trump reported he lost more than $32 million each year. In 2017, Trump said he lost nearly $13 million. But he reported taxable income of $24 million in 2018 and more than $4 million in 2019, giving him a sizeable tax bill.
However, in 2020, as the pandemic hit, Trump once again reported a gigantic loss of nearly $5 million. He paid $0 in federal income taxes that year.
What the public could learn
Although The New York Times obtained decades of Trump’s personal tax information in 2020, the federal tax returns being released Friday could shed light on additional years of Trump’s finances and paint a picture of how the former president used his business entities and personal wealth in the years before and after becoming president.
Democrats have long argued that Trump’s taxes could provide necessary information about whether the president had any entanglements that could impact his decision making as president.
Neal didn’t just request Trump’s raw federal tax return, however. He also requested administrative files and paperwork, items that could include IRS officials’ notes or audits of Trump’s returns. The information could paint a picture of what kind of scrutiny the IRS has pursued on Trump in the past and whether any of that scrutiny changed when he became president.
When the returns are made public, they could shed light on how wealthy Trump really is, how much he gave to charity and how much he paid in taxes. The New York Times report in 2020 made clear that Trump carried over business losses for years to legally be able to avoid paying taxes for many of those years, but Ways and Means will have access to some additional years of Trump taxes as well.