WASHINGTON ― Attorneys for President Donald Trump say a whistleblower’s claim that someone interfered with the Internal Revenue Service’s audit of Trump’s returns doesn’t bolster Democrats’ case for obtaining them.
In their first response to the tax interference allegation, lawyers for the Justice Department and Trump in his personal capacity said Monday that the whistleblower’s claims have no bearing on Democrats’ stated justification for pursuing the returns.
The committee “does not explain how these allegations are in any way related to its demand to see six years of tax returns and return information, let alone why only the tax returns and return information can satisfy its supposed legislative interest such that further negotiations are not even worthwhile,” the brief said.
Democrats filed suit in July in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia seeking six years of the president’s personal and business tax returns. They argue that they need those records to know whether the IRS is doing a good job auditing the president, which for decades the agency has done automatically every year for whoever holds the presidency.
In August, Democrats told District Judge Trevor McFadden that a federal employee had come forward with “evidence of possible misconduct” and “inappropriate efforts to influence” the president’s audit. Democrats say the whistleblower’s claim bolsters their case, and have offered to give McFadden details in private. He hasn’t yet taken them up on the offer.
House Ways and Means chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said Friday he might release some of the whistleblower’s information publicly. Neal’s comment came as another whistleblower’s revelation ― that the president asked a foreign government to investigate a political rival ― sparked a formal impeachment inquiry in the House.
A spokesman for Neal did not respond to requests for additional details.
The president’s lawyers have argued that if Democrats are actually curious about how the IRS audits the president, they should be negotiating with the administration for more information instead of running to a judge. One of their key defenses is that Democrats don’t have standing to sue and their case should be tossed, regardless of the legal arguments.
Democrats responded that there appears to be no negotiated solution. A federal law says the administration “shall” hand over tax returns requested by Ways and Means, but Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, has said Democrats will “never” get their hands on Trump’s taxes and the Justice Department said in a memo it would be unconstitutional to hand them over. That has left the two sides at an impasse.
Another administration argument is that Democrats are just trying to dig up dirt on the president. With no real plans to write legislation, the Ways and Means request has no “legitimate legislative purpose,” which federal courts have said in the past is something Congress must have when it demands information.
In a brief last week, Democrats pointed to several bills and hearings this year as evidence they would consider legislation based on information gleaned from the president’s taxes. They noted that Trump has bragged about “maneuvering the tax laws to his personal benefit,” and that the IRS has told them its presidential audit program lacks procedures for the type of trust Trump has reportedly used to organize his assets.
As for the whistleblower, in August Democrats offered a private ex parte briefing to McFadden, meaning the administration would not be able to see the material ― presumably to keep the whistleblower’s identity a secret.
Alexander Reinert, a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York, said there could be a number of reasons the judge hasn’t ordered the briefing yet. He could still be deciding whether Democrats have standing to sue, and is not yet convinced that the existence of the whistleblower’s report is relevant to the legal arguments in the case. Another could be that he might not think it’s fair to the president’s lawyers to accept a secret briefing.
“That’s an additional layer of difficulty because the other side wouldn’t get to see it,” Reinert said.