WASHINGTON — The Internal Revenue Service failed to audit former President Donald J. Trump’s tax filings for his first two years in office despite having a program that makes the auditing of sitting presidents mandatory, a House committee revealed Tuesday after an extraordinary vote to make public six years of his tax returns.
The agency only began an audit of Mr. Trump’s tax filings as president after Democrats took over the House and the Ways and Means Committee requested access to Mr. Trump’s taxes and any associated audits in 2019, lawmakers on the panel said. The I.R.S. has yet to complete that audit, they said.
The revelation transformed the political context surrounding the committee’s nearly four-year fight to obtain information about Mr. Trump’s taxes and any related audits. Its chairman, Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, had said the panel needed the data to assess the I.R.S. presidential audit program, but Mr. Trump’s lawyers and Republicans called that a pretext for a politically motivated fishing expedition.
That the auditing program had apparently broken down was an early revelation in what may be a series of disclosures from the expected release of Mr. Trump’s returns. Democrats said it may be several days before thousands of pages of tax filings from Mr. Trump and several associated businesses from 2015 to 2020 become public as they redact sensitive details, like street addresses and bank account numbers.
The party-line vote to release the materials came during Democrats’ waning control of the House after Republican gains in the midterm election. The committee invoked a century-old statute that allows it to lawfully make public otherwise confidential tax information involving Mr. Trump, who had defied tradition by refusing to disclose his financial information as a presidential candidate and sitting president.
The vote followed a closed-door debate that lasted more than four hours. It brought to an end a legal and political battle by the House to make public Mr. Trump’s hidden tax returns. Last month, with just weeks left before Republicans take over the House, the Supreme Court declined to block the I.R.S. from transferring the files.
After the vote, Mr. Neal, who as the committee’s chairman requested Mr. Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department, praised the committee’s handling of the documents.
“This was not about being punitive,” he said. This was not about being malicious. And there were no leaks from the committee. We adhered carefully to the law.”
But Republicans on the committee portrayed it as unjustified and setting a dangerous precedent, eroding a norm against exposing private taxpayer information that risked paving the way for future Congresses to routinely expose political adversaries’ private finances.
After the meeting, Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the top Republican on the panel, told reporters: “So regrettably, the deed is done. What was clear today is that public disclosure of President Trump’s private tax returns has nothing to do with the stated purpose of reviewing the IRS presidential audit process.”
Mr. Neal had first requested access to Mr. Trump’s tax returns in 2019, after Democrats won control of the House in the previous year’s midterm election and began trying to perform oversight of Mr. Trump. But the Trump administration would not let the Treasury Department comply with the request.
The panel eventually filed a lawsuit seeking to enforce its request, sparking a legal battle that played out over nearly four years. A Federal District Court judge and a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the committee, and last month after the Supreme Court declined to block their release.
Congress has used the law to release private taxpayer information before.
In 1974, a committee relied on that provision to issue a bipartisan staff report of President Richard M. Nixon’s tax returns.
And after a party-line vote in 2014Republicans used it to release information about groups applying for tax-exempt status. (At the time, Republicans accused the I.R.S. of singling out conservative groups for scrutiny in determining their eligibility for tax-deductible charitable donations. It turned out the I.R.S. had used words associated with conservative and liberal politics alike in picking which groups to examine.)
Other cracks had previously appeared in the wall of secrecy with which Mr. Trump sought to surround his finances as president, so it is not clear whether the release of the records would reveal major findings.
Prosecutors in New York had already obtained access to some Trump-related tax data, and his family business has been the subject of multiple investigations. The Trump Organization was convicted of a tax fraud scheme this month. The New York attorney general has sued Mr. Trump and three of his childrenaccusing them of lying to lenders and insurers by fraudulently overvaluing his assets.
The New York Times has also investigated Mr. Trump’s taxes, including obtaining tax-return data in 2020 that covered more than two decades. He paid no federal income taxes in 11 of 18 years that The Times examined; he also reduced his tax bill with questionable measures, including a $72.9 million tax refund that, as of 2020, was the subject of an I.R.S. audit.
Still, the returns the committee obtained contain more recent data.