Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY01) is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate how the New York Times acquired President Donald Trump’s tax return information.
The Times on Sunday night reported extensively on the president’s tax history, assets and debts, in a story that disclosed the president paid $750 in federal income taxes in each of the tax years 2016 and 2017 and paid no income taxes at all in 10 of the previous 15 years.
The Times reported on the complex maneuvers employed by Trump and his companies to avoid tax liability and recoup taxes paid in prior tax years, using provisions of the federal tax law that allow losses to be carried forward, as well as business investment credits and depreciation on capital investments.
The president and an attorney for his company have both denied the accuracy of the Times’ reporting.
The newspaper said it had obtained “tax-return data extending over more than two decades for Mr. Trump and the hundreds of companies that make up his business organization, including detailed information from his first two years in office.”
Zeldin wants the Department of Justice to find out how.
Yesterday, Zeldin wrote to Attorney General William Barr asking the DOJ “to investigate whether any information about President Trump’s tax returns were illegally released to the New York Times and whether any action needs to be taken by the Department of Justice regarding this issue.” The letter was first reported yesterday by Breitbart.
The congressman noted New York Times said it would publish further reporting based on the tax information the paper obtained from an unnamed source or sources.
“It is imperative to determine as soon as possible whether federal crimes were committed in the transmission of any confidential information,” Zeldin wrote.
Tax returns and return information are considered confidential information and, except as spelled out by federal law, may not be disclosed by any federal or state officer or employee or by certain other persons with access to the information.
Federal law makes it a felony to disclose a taxpayer’s returns or tax return information unless the disclosure is authorized by one of the long list of exceptions to the general prohibition.
The president in a tweet on Monday morning declared his tax information was “illegally obtained.” He did not elaborate.
Trump has declined to release his tax returns, breaking with a tradition held by presidents and presidential candidates since the 1970s.
President Richard Nixon began releasing his tax returns after someone at the IRS in 1973 illegally leaked his 1970 and 1971 returns — which showed the president paid only $792.81 in federal income tax in 1970 and $878.03 in 1971 — to a Providence Journal reporter. The Providence Journal published reporter Jack White’s story on Oct. 3, 1973. The story won White a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 1974.
There is no law requiring a president or presidential candidate to release their tax returns.
Since his campaign for the presidency in 2016, Trump has said many times he cannot release his tax returns because he is under audit by the IRS, which he says treats him “horribly.” There is no law that prevents someone under audit from releasing his returns. He has also said he would release them once he was not under audit, which he has also said happens every year.
According to the New York Times story, the IRS audit of Trump’s returns began after he claimed and received a $72.9 million federal income tax refund in 2010, representing all the income tax he paid for 2005 through 2008, plus interest. The audit is investigating the legitimacy of that refund. The Times reported Trump declared $1.4 billion in business losses for 2008 and 2009 After a Great Recession economic recovery bill signed into law by President Obama in 2009, taxpayers were able to request full refunds of taxes paid in the previous four years and a 50% refund in the year before that.
The Times reported that while Trump paid no income taxes in 2008 “the change meant that when he filed his taxes for 2009, he could seek a refund of not just the $13.3 million he had paid in 2007, but also the combined $56.9 million paid in 2005 and 2006, when ‘The Apprentice’ created what was likely the biggest income tax bite of his life.”
The IRS subsequently initiated audits of Trump’s 2010 through 2013 tax returns, according to the newspaper. The audit case has been before the congressional bipartisan Joint Committee on Taxation since the spring of 2016, where it has apparently stalled, the Times reported.
Trump has gone to court to prevent both his accounting firm, Mazars USA, and a financial institution, Deutsche Bank, from complying with congressional subpoenas for his tax returns. The president has also sued Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to block his attempt to subpoena his tax records. Both made their way to the U.S. Supreme Court and both were remanded back to lower courts, where they remain pending.
In his letter to the attorney general, Zeldin did not indicate what action he thought the Department of Justice should take.
Zeldin specifically mentioned the Times’ stated intention to publish additional stories about the president’s tax data, which, he wrote, makes it “imperative to determine as soon as possible whether federal crimes were committed in the transmission of any confidential information.”
The congressman did not suggest any possible illegality in publishing the information. Generally, the press enjoys broad protections under the First Amendment. Journalists cannot be punished for publishing information that was obtained illegally, as long as the journalist wasn’t involved in illegally obtaining the information.
The press also cannot be prevented from publishing information — even classified information — except under very narrow circumstances. The Supreme Court in New York Times Co. v. United States — in what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers case — ruled that in any attempt to prevent publication of information, the government “carries a heavy burden for showing justification of the imposition of such a restraint.”
Zeldin said through a spokesperson he has “called for the president to release his tax returns going back all the way to 2016.“
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