President Donald Trump is now required to release his tax records if he wants to be on the California primary ballot — a regulation he’ll most likely fight in court.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law on Tuesday that requires all presidential candidates to turn over five years’ worth of income tax filings by November in order to secure a spot in the March 3 primary. The financial documents will then be posted online with sensitive, personal information redacted. One catch: The law technically does not bar a candidate from appearing on the general election ballot in 2020. (So Trump could theoretically avoid disclosing them or fighting a court battle over the law by forsaking California’s delegates in an uncontested primary, knowing he’d still get the GOP’s nomination.)
“These are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence,” Newsom said in a statement. “The disclosure required by this bill will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or influence from domestic and foreign business interest.”
Although the bill doesn’t specifically name Trump, lawmakers have made it clear that he’s the target. The law passed in state legislature earlier this month on a strict party-line vote (Democrats currently control 75 percent of the California legislature). Although Newsom had sent mixed signals on whether or not he’d sign the bill until Tuesday, he’s been a critic of Trump’s reluctance to disclose his tax releases.
Folks think @realDonaldTrump is avoiding tax release because he pays a very low rate .I think its because his finances are a house of cards
— Gavin Newsom (@GavinNewsom) May 12, 2016
The bill has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers in the state, including Senate Minority Leader Shannon Grove, who told Democrats to “quit poking the bear.”
The likelihood of this law actually leading to the disclosure of Trump’s taxes is unclear — like the fate of most of the other efforts to access his records. His campaign will most likely file a lawsuit to fight the new rule in federal courts.
“The Constitution is clear on the qualifications for someone to serve as president and states cannot add additional requirements on their own,” the Trump campaign’s communications director, Tim Murtaugh, said in a statement. “The bill also violates the 1st Amendment right of association, since California can’t tell political parties which candidates their members can or cannot vote for in a primary election.”
A similar measure was vetoed in the past by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017, who said it would set a bad precedent.
“Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?” Brown said at the time. “Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”
It remains to be seen if Trump’s campaign will make the same argument.
Trump fighting several legal challenges to protect his tax records
This isn’t the first time Trump could head to court over his tax returns. Lawmakers have been trying to get Trump’s tax records for years, and ever since Democrats seized the House in 2018, the legal conflict has intensified.
In April, Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) invoked his authority as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee to request Trump’s tax information from the IRS, per an obscure 1924 law. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, however, denied their request and resisted subpoenas with the backing of the Trump administration. Mnuchin’s response to the committee reflects the Trump campaign’s argument: there’s no need to provide the tax returns because Democrats lack a “legitimate legislative purpose.”
In response, the House Ways and Means Committee filed a lawsuit on July 2 to enforce the subpoenas for Trump’s tax records. As Vox’s Emily Stewart reports, Democrats claim that their oversight authority is under attack:
“In refusing to comply with the statute, Defendants have mounted an extraordinary attack on the authority of Congress to obtain information needed to conduct oversight of Treasury, the IRS, and the tax laws on behalf of the American people who participate in the Nation’s voluntary tax system,” the lawsuit reads.
Democrats are investigating the IRS’s administration of “various tax laws and policies” related to presidential tax returns and tax law compliance, the lawsuit continues, including whether the IRS’s policy of auditing sitting presidents annually is actually happening.
California isn’t the only state aiding efforts to reveal the president’s tax returns. On July 8, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that would authorize the New York state tax commissioner to release state tax returns to three congressional committees: the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation. As narrow as the bill may seem, it could provide insight into the finances of long-time New York resident Donald Trump. As of now, however, Congress has yet to officially reach out to the state.
Even that measure, however, has been challenged in court by the Trump. On July 23, the president filed a lawsuit against the House Ways and Means Committee, New York Attorney General Letitia James, and New York Tax Commissioner Michael Schmidt to block the release of his tax returns.
These lawsuits are expected to be long and grueling; indeed they already are. Those procedures, however, might just have to speed up with the introduction of California law, as the deadline for filing for the primary is approaching quickly.
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