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Democrats retake House. Next move: Trump's tax returns

Donald J Trump signing 2014 tax returns via his Twitter account
This photo via Donald J. Trump's Twitter account is the closest we've gotten to seeing his tax returns.  That could change, though, now that the House flipped to Democratic control in the midterm election.

Even before it was official that Democrats had wrested House control from the GOP in yesterday's midterm elections, Donald J. Trump's taxes were once again a target.

Votes were still being counted and, on the West Coast cast, when some on the House tax-writing committee announced that the when leadership is transferred to them in January 2019, they will officially request to see Donald J. Trump's tax returns.

Trump knew it was coming. And he says it's no big deal.

"I don't care. They can do whatever they want, and I can do whatever I want," Trump told reporters who raised the matter of his tax returns as he exited Air Force One Nov. 5 for a midterm rally in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

What the House can and likely will do is request Trump's tax returns.

And what Trump can and likely will do is the same thing he's been doing since he announced his run for the White House more than three years ago. Ignore them.

But that won't be so easy now that his political opponents have regained a modicum of power in Washington, D.C.  They have tax law, in the form of an a 1920s-era Internal Revenue Code provision that gives them a shot at seeing Trump's 1040s.

Breaking tax return tradition: During the 2016 campaign, Trump disregarded a 40-year tradition by deciding to keep his personal tax returns private.

Trump's explanation was that his taxes were under audit. He still has that excise since winning office, since all presidents' filings are automatically audited.

Trump, however, had indicated he would make his older filings to the public once the Internal Revenue Service examination was complete. But once he settled into the Oval Office, it became evident that he has no intention of opening up his tax life, prior or post-election.

Trump's other unorthodox approaches to the highest elected office in the land, such as refusing to place his self-proclaimed riches into a blind trust and letting his company continue to do business and benefit from his political post (particularly his hotel down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House), have only increased interest in his taxes.

There's been much speculation — and salivating by partisans at the prospect — that if the Democrats got control of the House and/or Senate while Trump was in office, they would move to take a look at his tax returns.

New interest in old tax law: Here's why and how that would work.

An obscure tax code law from 1924 says that the chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance Committee (not the House Financial Services Committee as has been widely, and wrongly, reported) the two tax-writing Congressional panels, can request the president's — actually, anyone's — tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service in order to conduct an investigation.

The law was an outgrowth of the Warren G. Harding Administration's involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal. For those of us who haven't looked at our high school history books for a while, the issue here was alleged bribery of government officials by private interests to gain leases to public oil fields.

The Congressional ability to see a citizen's tax returns was added to rectify what was an apparent conflict of interest in seeking tax data as part of an investigation. Previously, if in conducting its oversight duties Congress wanted to see any tax return, it had to request them through the president's office, even if the president and his taxes were part of the investigation.

Once the committee members review the tax returns in private, they can vote to release all, or parts, of the returns to the public.

Already tried and mostly failed under GOP rule: Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. is probably the happiest House member right now. The New Jersey Democrat has tried repeatedly to use the law to get a look at Trump's taxes.

Each time, House and Ways and Means leaders shot Ways and Means chairman slammed the door on Pascrell's efforts.

As rebukes of Pascrell indicate, there's been much vociferous debate over this process.

However, it's been used before, most recently, during the GOP-led House investigation into the IRS/Tea Party scandal. This issue arose in 2013 after allegations that the tax agency intentionally and for political reasons delayed granting of tax-exempt status to primarily conservative organizations

The ensuring years of questioning about the IRS' 501(c)(4) process ended last year, with many IRS leaders resigning, but without the results that many Republicans and Tea Party-affiliated groups wanted.

The Capitol Hill inquiries did, however, lead to the public release of some of the groups' privacy-protected (and redacted) tax materials, albeit no individual returns were revealed.

Trump's real tax return reaction: Despite 45's apparent nonchalance, when push comes to shove (and it will), he will likely fight the effort to let anyone, in Congress or beyond, see his tax filings.

"Still, after withholding the documents for so long, Mr. Trump is unlikely to hand over his taxes without a fight. Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, said this month that it would be a struggle for Democrats to prove that they have a legitimate oversight objective and that it would be a 'heck of a good battle' for the president," noted Alan Rappeport in a recent New York Times article.

And Trump would have some powerful potential allies in that battle.

The decision to turn over 45's taxes would be made by Steven Mnuchin, the man he appointed to head the Treasury Department.

The Treasury Secretary said in a pre-election interview that he would honor any legal requests from Congress to release Trump's tax returns. But, noted The New York Times, the demand would undoubtedly put Mnuchin in the uncomfortable position of balancing his loyalty to Trump with a legal requirement to deliver the returns.

Headed to the High Court: Regardless of what Mnuchin decides, the matter likely will end up in court.

And if it goes all the to the nation's highest court, two Trump appointees — Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — could be key in any eventual legal ruling.

I'm not saying the High Court pair will decide a matter of law simply to satisfy the man who got them jobs.

However, both were appointed in large part because of their judicial history of rulings that Trump and his advisers liked. Kavanaugh in particular has indicated that he favors protecting sitting presidents in legal cases against them.

But it will take a while before it gets to that point. So get your popcorn supplies ready and settle in for the long haul.

It's going to be a political reality show that even the former Celebrity Apprentice boss didn't see on the program schedule.

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