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Trump files a lawsuit against new California election law that requires his tax returns

The lawsuit called the new law “a naked political attack against the sitting President of the United States.”

President Donald Trump looks on during a rally at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida, to officially launch his 2020 campaign on June 18, 2019.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, a new California law required President Donald Trump to release his tax records if he wants to be on the California primary ballot. Now his campaign is officially fighting it in court.

The lawsuit, filed by Trump against the California secretary of state and the state attorney general, called the new law “a naked political attack against the sitting President of the United States.”

The new law, which California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed on July 30, requires all presidential candidates to turn over five years’ worth of income tax filings by November in order to secure a spot in the March 3 primary. The financial documents will then be posted online with sensitive personal information redacted.

“These are extraordinary times and states have a legal and moral duty to do everything in their power to ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards, and to restore public confidence,” Newsom said in a statement. “The disclosure required by this bill will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or influence from domestic and foreign business interest.”

The lawsuit, however, alleges that this law is unconstitutional because only the Constitution has the power to set requirements for presidential candidates: They must be a natural-born citizen who is 35 or older and has been a US resident for at least 14 years. States are not allowed to add supplements to the qualifications, according to the lawsuit. One catch of the law that its writers hope might help them prevail in court: The law technically does not bar a candidate from appearing on the general election ballot in 2020. (That also means Trump could theoretically avoid disclosing the financial documents or fighting this court battle by forsaking California’s delegates in an uncontested primary, knowing he’d still get the GOP’s nomination.)

Although the bill doesn’t specifically name Trump, lawmakers have made it clear that he’s the target. The law passed in the state legislature earlier this month on a strict party-line vote (Democrats currently control 75 percent of the California legislature). Although Newsom had sent mixed signals on whether he’d sign the bill until the last minute, he’s been a critic of Trump’s reluctance to disclose his tax releases.

The bill has drawn criticism from Republican lawmakers in the state, including Senate Minority Leader Shannon Grove, who told Democrats to “quit poking the bear.”

The likelihood of this law actually leading to the disclosure of Trump’s taxes is unclear — like the fate of most of the other efforts to access his records.

“The Constitution is clear on the qualifications for someone to serve as president and states cannot add additional requirements on their own,” the Trump campaign’s communications director, Tim Murtaugh, said in a statement when the law was announced. “The bill also violates the 1st Amendment right of association, since California can’t tell political parties which candidates their members can or cannot vote for in a primary election.”

A similar measure was vetoed in the past by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017, who said it would set a bad precedent.

“Today we require tax returns, but what would be next?” Brown said at the time. “Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?”

Trump is fighting several legal challenges to protect his tax records

This isn’t the first time Trump has headed to court over his tax returns. Lawmakers have been trying to get his tax records for years, and ever since Democrats seized the House in 2018, the legal conflict has intensified.

In April, Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA) invoked his authority as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee to request Trump’s tax information from the IRS, per an obscure 1924 law. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, however, denied their request and resisted subpoenas with the backing of the Trump administration. Mnuchin’s response to the committee reflects the Trump campaign’s argument: There’s no need to provide the tax returns because Democrats lack a “legitimate legislative purpose.”

In response, Ways and Means filed a lawsuit on July 2 to enforce the subpoenas for Trump’s tax records. As Vox’s Emily Stewart reports, Democrats claim that their oversight authority is under attack:

“In refusing to comply with the statute, Defendants have mounted an extraordinary attack on the authority of Congress to obtain information needed to conduct oversight of Treasury, the IRS, and the tax laws on behalf of the American people who participate in the Nation’s voluntary tax system,” the lawsuit reads.

Democrats are investigating the IRS’s administration of “various tax laws and policies” related to presidential tax returns and tax law compliance, the lawsuit continues, including whether the IRS’s policy of auditing sitting presidents annually is actually happening.

California isn’t the only state aiding efforts to reveal the president’s tax returns. On July 8, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that would authorize the New York state tax commissioner to release state tax returns to three congressional committees: the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee, and the Joint Committee on Taxation. As narrow as the bill may seem, it could provide insight into Trump’s finances, as the president is a longtime New York resident. As of now, however, Congress has yet to officially reach out to the state.

Even that measure, however, has been challenged in court by Trump. On July 23, the president filed a lawsuit against the House Ways and Means Committee, New York Attorney General Letitia James, and New York Tax Commissioner Michael Schmidt to block the release of his tax returns.

These lawsuits are expected to be long and grueling; indeed, they already are. Those procedures, however, might just have to speed up with the introduction of the California law, as the deadline for filing for the primary is approaching quickly.