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House committee files lawsuit seeking Trump’s tax returns

President Trump.
President Trump.MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The House filed a lawsuit Tuesday to force the Treasury Department to turn over President Donald Trump’s tax returns, escalating a fight with an administration that has repeatedly dismissed as illegitimate the Democrats’ attempt to obtain Trump’s financial records.

The lawsuit moves the dispute into federal courts after months of sniping between the Democratic-led House Ways and Means Committee, which requested and then subpoenaed the returns, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The outcome is likely to determine whether financial information that Trump — breaking with long-standing tradition — has kept closely guarded as a candidate and as president will be viewed by Congress and, ultimately, by the public.

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But with the House and the executive branch locked in a broader struggle over access to Trump administration information and witnesses, the stakes in the tax-return lawsuit may be higher than that particular issue. House Democrats are facing resistance on a broad range of investigations that include inquiries into Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference, the insertion of a citizenship question into the 2020 census, and the profits gleaned from Trump’s ongoing business ventures.

In almost every instance, the Trump administration has argued that Congress’ power to access those materials is inherently limited to information that would serve “legitimate” legislative purposes — defined by the executive branch as materials primarily needed to help draft new laws.

Congress retorts that its powers to compel information are far more sweeping than that and encompass oversight of important matters in general — and that its decisions about what information it wants to subpoena are not to be second-guessed by the White House.

The same dispute is at the center of a pair of lawsuits over subpoenas to accounting and banking firms for other financial records involving the Trump Organization. So far, two U.S. District Court judges have rejected the argument offered by Trump’s private legal team that those requests did not carry legitimate legislative purposes. Trump has taken those losses to appeals courts.

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A ruling by a federal court on the merits of the recurring dispute has the potential to shift the balance of power between the two branches and impact the authority of Congress to conduct oversight over not just Trump but presidents for years to come. That outcome, though, could take months or years — a reality certain to frustrate liberals who are irate both at Trump’s across-the-board blockade of congressional subpoenas and at the House’s plodding pace in bringing the case to court.