House committee can obtain Trump tax returns from IRS, appeals court rules

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(WASHINGTON) — A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the House Ways and Means Committee can obtain Donald Trump's tax returns in the latest blow to the former president's effort to shield his finances from Democratic lawmakers.

In the opinion for the three-judge panel, Circuit Judge David Sentelle, a Ronald Reagan appointee, wrote that the committee's investigation served a valid legislative purpose and that the 2019 request for Trump's records was not a retaliatory move in violation of his First Amendment rights.

"The need for the Trump Parties' information to inform potential legislation overrides the burden to the Executive Branch largely because that burden is so tenuous," Sentelle wrote.

While the committee said it expects to receive the returns "immediately," it's not clear how quickly that process will unfold -- given that Trump could still appeal the ruling.

A spokesperson for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment from ABC News.

Democrats successfully argued before the court that the returns were necessary for the tax-writing panel to obtain for a review of the IRS presidential audit program and to determine whether any reforms are needed.

Trump has sought to keep his tax returns under wraps ever since he launched his presidential bid in 2015, claiming that he was not at liberty to release the documents because of an audit. That position was cited by the House panel in launching its probe.

"[T]he Chairman made clear in his letter that the tax returns and return information of the Trump Parties are unique among former Presidents … and learning about how the audit of these complex returns proceeded is necessary to learn whether the Audit Program is sufficiently staffed and resourced to handle such complex information," Sentelle wrote in Tuesday's opinion.

Once the committee receives the requested returns, they are reviewed in private but could be made public by a majority vote of committee members.

Despite a possible further appeal from Trump, Neal touted the latest ruling as a win.

"With great patience, we followed the judicial process, and yet again, our position has been affirmed by the Courts. I'm pleased that this long-anticipated opinion makes clear the law is on our side. When we receive the returns, we will begin our oversight of the IRS's mandatory presidential audit program," Neal said in a statement.

Trump's refusal to release his tax returns has led to years of heightened speculation about his sprawling -- and murky -- finances, and reports have surfaced about the extent of his past business practices and personal wealth.

The appellate court's ruling comes a day after the FBI searched Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. That search was carried out in connection to Trump's transport of classified documents to his home after leaving the White House last year, sources told ABC. Trump labeled the raid political persecution.

The former president is also under legal scrutiny in Georgia -- over his efforts to have his 2020 loss in the state overturned -- and in New York over allegations he inflated the value of his business. He has denied all wrongdoing.

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