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Republicans vying for key congressional chair would drop court fight for returns

Protestors take part in the ‘Tax March’ calling on President Donald Trump to release his tax records on April 15, 2017 in New York.

Mark Ralston | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Now that Republicans have won the House, attention has turned to a battle underway within the GOP caucus for the chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee, a coveted position leading Congress’ powerful tax-writing panel.

Three Republicans — Reps. Jason Smith of Missouri, Vern Buchanan of Florida and Nebraska’s Adrian Smith — are openly vying for the post, which will be decided by party leaders. None is a clear favorite, and the committee’s current top Republican, retiring Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas has not endorsed anyone.

But while the contest for chair is still up in the air, one thing is certain: The next likely chairman of the Ways and Means Committee will drop the panel’s long-running effort to obtain former President Donald Trump’s tax returns.

The fight began in 2019, when the Democratic-controlled Ways and Means committee asked the IRS for Trump’s returns. The Trump-era Treasury Department, which oversees the IRS, refused to provide them, and the committee sued for them. When Biden took office and the Treasury Department moved to hand over the returns, Trump countersued to stop the release. He lost in district court and he lost on appeal.

Trump then asked the Supreme Court for a last-minute emergency stay to halt the handover, and the court granted it Nov. 1. Now, the court could decide any day to lift the stay, or decide to extend it. If the hold is lifted, Treasury would deliver the returns to the Ways and Means Committee, likely within days.

Buchanan, currently the No. 2 Republican on the committee, told CNBC if he were chairman he would drop the request for Trump’s tax returns because it raised concerns about individual privacy and IRS independence.

“Washington should not be in the business of using the IRS as a political tool,” Buchanan said Wednesday in an email to CNBC.

“This would establish a dangerous precedent that would make it easier for Congress to target average Americans,” he added.

Unlike his other two competitors for the top spot, Buchanan did not mention Trump by name.

Missouri GOP Rep. Jason Smith, who is not related to Nebraska’s Adrian Smith, said he too would halt the years long effort to get Trump’s tax returns.

But for Jason Smith, dropping the request is part of a broader Republican effort to rein in or stymie a whole class of congressional investigations into Trump that Democrats conducted while he was in office.

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“As chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, we will end the subpoena for President Trump’s private taxpayer information and extinguish the lawsuit from Congress over this issue once and for all,” Jason Smith said in an email.

“This has been a partisan witch hunt from the start to ignite the Left and further divide the country with zero legislative purpose,” he added.

Jason Smith is a proud populist, and he hails from a district that voted for Trump by more than 50 points in 2020. Part of his pitch for the Ways and Means chair is that under his leadership, the committee would conduct aggressive oversight of the IRS, and would consider eliminating tax breaks for “woke” corporations that oppose state laws restricting abortion rights.

The third candidate for the chairmanship, Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska, said the campaign to compel the IRS to turn over Trump’s tax returns did not align with the committee’s responsibilities.

“House Democrats’ lawsuit seeking President Trump’s tax returns is a political witch hunt with no legitimate legislative or oversight purpose within the Ways and Means Committee’s jurisdiction, and I would not continue it as chairman,” Adrian Smith said in an email.

He also said “Targeting Americans’ tax returns based on their political views, regardless of whether they are Democrats, Republicans, or neither, is wrong.”

A spokesman for Trump did not respond to a request for comment.

During his time in office, Trump himself allegedly tried to use the I.R .S. as a tool to punish his perceived enemies repeatedly, his former White House chief of staff, John Kelly, told The New York Times.

According to Kelly, Trump said “we ought to investigate” and “get the I.R.S. on” James Comey, the former F.B.I. director who Trump fired in 2017, and Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the F.B.I.

Both men were later selected by the I.R.S. for a rare and exhaustive type of tax audit.

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