WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump exhibited "aggressive tax planning" prior to his 2016 election and "could have eliminated his taxes for a couple of decades" by claiming millions in business-related losses, tax expert Steven Rosenthal told a congressional panel Thursday.
"There is a lot to find," said Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center who has scrutinized portions of Trump's 1995 and 2005 returns last year in partnership with the New York Times.
Rosenthal was among several nonpartisan tax experts who testified at the first Democratic-run House Ways and Means Committee hearing on Trump's taxes. The hearing was intended to begin "building the public case for why the American people deserve to know something — anything — about Trump's finances," said a Democrat leadership aide who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The experts affirmed the tax-writing committee's authority to obtain Trump's returns from the U.S. Treasury — kicking off a pitched battle by the new House leadership to obtain the documents that every U.S. president dating to Richard Nixon has voluntarily disclosed to the public.
"The committee can ask for anything it wants" and Trump is not prohibited from releasing his returns while under audit, said George K. Yin, a law and taxation professor at the University of Virginia School of Law
Further, "I know of no instance in which a request has been refused," he said, as long as Congress demonstrates a "legitimate purpose," said Yin.
Republicans on the committee protested the attempts. They insisted the Internal Revenue Service is already examining the president's taxes by audit and that there is no precedent for forcing the release of tax returns during an active special counsel investigation, a reference to the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election by special counsel Robert Mueller.
"This is all about weaponizing our tax laws" to target "political foes," said Rep. Jackie Walorski, an Indiana Republican.
There was also disagreement over the process by which the House Ways and Means Committee could release the returns to the general public.
Ken Kies, a former Republican chief of staff of the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation and managing director of the Federal Policy Group, warned that releasing any U.S. taxpayer's returns to the general public is "to commit a felony." Further, he said the current IRS audits of Trump's returns are probably already "pretty intense."
Democratic members of the panel agreed there would need to be a vote both within the committee and by the full U.S. House before the returns could be made public.
Noah Bookbinder, executive director at the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has been conducting numerous investigations of the Trump administration, offered examples of what the public could learn from Trump's returns -- beginning with whether he has been complying with all U.S. laws.
Bookbinder cited a New York Times report that Trump's family had "engaged in a tax avoidance scheme," a current investigation by the New York Attorney General into Trump's former foundation and whether it broke the law by coordinating with his 2016 presidential campaign.
Further, it's unclear how Trump has benefited from tax legislation that is his signature legislative achievement. Trump and his family could have personally benefited by more than $1 billion by the tax bill, said Rep. Lloyd Dogget, D-Texas.
"Tax transparency would open the public's eyes," said Bookbinder, and "that could lead to greater accountability."
The Democratic aide cautioned that Trump's taxes are part of a far broader inquiry into Trump's finances that will span six different congressional committees.
On Wednesday House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said his committee has begun "to pursue credible reports of money laundering and financial compromise related to the business interests of President Trump, his family, and his associates. The president's actions and posture towards Russia during the campaign, transition, and administration have only heightened fears of foreign financial or other leverage over President Trump."