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Suing To See Them, Rep. Neal "Not Surprised" By President's Tax Returns

This is a photo of Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal
JD Allen
This is a photo of Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal

A long-running lawsuit by the House Ways and Means Committee to access President Donald Trump’s tax returns will continue after the New York Times published a lengthy report about the returns on Sunday. 

The newspaper obtained years of the president’s tax documents from an unnamed source. It reports Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes the year he ran for president and in his first year in the White House. The Republican has fiercely guarded his tax filings, becoming the only president in modern times not to make them public.

Massachusetts Congressman Richard Neal, a Democrat from the 1st district, chairs the Ways and Means Committee — the main tax-writing committee in the House. He spoke with WAMC’s Ian Pickus this afternoon.

What was your reaction to the story?

Well, I'm not surprised. And as I read through yesterday afternoon the result of the inquiry made by the Times, it seemed to be consistent with the argument we've had in the federal courts with the president over his tax forms. I do think that the issue that was raised about the $72.9 million tax refund that he claimed and received, after declaring huge losses, would be consistent with the case that I have filed in the federal district court of Washington. And recall that our case, as offered, is about policy. The basis of our case was, how is a president’s tax forms audited by the Internal Revenue Service? So ours has always been a policy question. The other side has claimed it was a political question. We've been curious about this for a period of time. Every president since Richard Nixon has willfully divulged their tax forms for public inspection. And so I am not surprised by what we've discovered through the New York Times reporting.

His own IRS says that being under audit does not prevent somebody from releasing their tax returns. Do you have any hope that he may now be inspired to release them and foreclose your ongoing lawsuit?

Well, the lawsuit that we have is going to continue, regardless of whether or not the president is successful on Election Day, we've determined that there's enough precedent here, given how other presidents have released their forms, so that we want to make sure that future presidents are also prepared to release their forms. So this case continues regardless of the outcome. And is it rests now with Judge McFadden in the federal district court of Washington. We are awaiting his decision.

Do have any guesses as to who the Times’ source was?

I don't have any guess. And I think that it's important as we go forward on this to without having them name, perhaps who it was. I think that they could give us a suggestion as to how the references were drawn.

What questions do you still have after that expansive article?

Well, look, I mean, I think the idea that somebody can claim this extraordinary success that the president does in the business world and then pay $750 in income taxes, is inconsistent with the position he has taken about his business success. In addition, there were 10 years when he paid no federal income tax at all. So what I would suggest is I think this has been a very sophisticated tax avoidance effort that the president and his tax attorneys and accountants have undertaken. Our tax system rests upon the belief that the public has in everybody being accountable for paying their fair share. It's beyond me how somebody who can claim that they're worth $11 billion could go 12 years and only have sent about $1,500 to the Internal Revenue Service.

A lot of the commentary following the report has centered on that question. In your opinion, do we need to look at the way the tax system works? Because we're seeing a lot of reports today, saying that for people who are that rich and have that much money, this is sort of business as usual: to try to find a way to pay the least amount possible using sophisticated schemes?

Well, I think that that's the term when you describe the sophisticated tax avoidance. For sure, I think that the wealthy pick and choose many of the items in the code. There are parts of the code that are exceedingly complex and don't have to be, but all the more reason for the president to release his tax forms so there can be a full investigation and examination of what those documents include.

I want to ask you about just a couple other things while we have you. The Republicans are looking to fast-track a new Supreme Court nominee that President Trump made over the weekend. Number one, is there anything Senate Democrats can do to halt that appointment? Number two, do you think it's a good idea to expand the number of seats on the Supreme Court, which is something that Democrats are talking about?

Well, on the first count, I think that the president should wait until after the election before asking for the nominee’s formal consideration, and I think that we should apply the same standard that Merrick Garland had applied to him. So I think that the next president ought to be the one that determines the nominee for the vacancy on the court. And I think it is worthy of examination as to whether or not the court ought to be expanded. I probably would not have said that before the Merrick Garland case. But I think now, the hardball that has been determined, and we've all had to witness in the manner in which the last two Supreme Court nominations have been filled. We need to take a hard look at the Supreme Court.

Do you have a number in mind? We have nine right now?

I don't. I do think that in American history, that the number is very, that's an important consideration, the idea that it's always been nine, or that we've always suggested it could only be nine, is not met by historical standards. It has been examined and changed in the past.

Tomorrow, former Vice President Joe Biden and President Trump will debate for the first time. What should Joe Biden attempt to accomplish in that debate, in your opinion?

I think he should hold his cool. I think he's presidential, I think people are going to understand the narrative that he's going to create. But I don't want it to be turned into the same circus that it was four years ago with a candidate circling the Secretary of State and using derogatory descriptions. I think that a lot of the success of that debate tomorrow night is going to reside with Chris Wallace. And how he determines the confines of the debate, and how he makes sure that we talk about the major issues of the day. Our job in moments like this, for the elected, is not to entertain the American people. It's to inform them.

Do you have any expectations that President Trump will hold to that standard?

Well, if it's based on what he did four years ago, I wouldn't expect it.

A lifelong resident of the Capital Region, Ian joined WAMC in late 2008 and became news director in 2013. He began working on Morning Edition and has produced The Capitol Connection, Congressional Corner, and several other WAMC programs. Ian can also be heard as the host of the WAMC News Podcast and on The Roundtable and various newscasts. Ian holds a BA in English and journalism and an MA in English, both from the University at Albany, where he has taught journalism since 2013.
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