Audit likely gave congressional staff glimpse of Trump taxes

FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2018, photo, Trump Tower, center, stands on New York's Fifth Avenue. An obscure function of Congress may have once put President Donald Trump's tax information in the hands of congressional staff. But even if it did, that doesn't mean staffers can give access to Trump's tax returns to lawmakers, at least not legally. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)
FILE - In this Aug. 27, 2018, photo, Trump Tower, center, stands on New York's Fifth Avenue. An obscure function of Congress may have once put President Donald Trump's tax information in the hands of congressional staff. But even if it did, that doesn't mean staffers can give access to Trump's tax returns to lawmakers, at least not legally. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File) (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – It’s one of the most obscure functions of Congress, little known or understood even by most lawmakers. But it may have once put staffers in possession of one of the most enduring mysteries of the Donald Trump era: his tax data, which The New York Times revealed to the world.

The Times report last month included a series of bombshell revelations about Trump’s finances, including that he paid only $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and that he carries $421 million in debt. Trump has long refused to release his tax returns, blaming an IRS audit.

That’s where Congress comes in. The audit of Trump’s taxes, the Times reported, has been held up for more than four years by staffers for the Joint Committee on Taxation, which has 30 days to review individual refunds and tax credits over $2 million. When JCT staffers disagree with the IRS on a decision, the review is typically kept open until the matter is resolved.

The upshot is that information on Trump’s taxes, which Democrats are now suing to see, has almost certainly passed through the JCT's hands, putting it tantalizingly close to lawmakers.

Key members of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee defended the JCT after the Times report and were emphatic that the panel does not have copies of tax forms pertaining to Trump.

“They are not sitting at JCT,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass. “I see no evidence that they’re sitting on those forms.”

But lawmakers did not say whether the JCT has reviewed any tax refund involving the president. Neal and top House Republican tax expert Kevin Brady of Texas said the panel typically completes its reviews in a month or two, at most.

“The vast majority of JCT refund reviews are processed quickly and very rarely does JCT express concerns with the IRS audit findings,” said Brady, who has previously chaired the panel. “Contrary to the Times’ reporting, I think the longest time JCT has ever had a case pending is one year. I think we should focus on the facts as much as possible.”