The Treasury Department has missed a deadline to deliver President Donald Trump's tax returns to the House Ways and Means Committee chairman. It's another early step in a battle between the Trump administration and congressional Democrats over access to Trump's business and financial dealings, with the dispute likely to end up in court.
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In a letter to Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said his department hasn't decided whether to comply with the lawmaker's demand and will consult with the Justice Department and "carefully" review the request further. Neal asked for Trump's returns a week ago.
"The legal implications of this request could affect protections for all Americans against politically-motivated disclosures of personal tax information, regardless of which party is in power," Mnuchin wrote on Wednesday.
Mnuchin said the Treasury respects lawmakers' oversight duties and would make sure taxpayer protections would be "scrupulously observed, consistent with my statutory responsibilities" as the department reviews the request.
Neal reacted cautiously and is expected to have a fuller response later this week after consulting with House lawyers. Other Democrats accused the administration of dragging their feet.
"How many lawyers and how much time does it take for Secretary Mnuchin to understand that 'shall' means 'shall'?" Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, said in a statement that alluded to the 1924 statute that mandates the IRS provide any taxpayer's returns when asked by a handful of top lawmakers.
Access to Trump's returns would give Democrats information into the president's business dealings and potential conflicts of interest
Trump had told reporters before Mnuchin sent the letter that he "would love to give" the returns, but would not do so while he was under audit, a stand he long has taken. The IRS says there's no rule against subjects of an audit from publicly releasing their tax filings.
Neal asked the IRS last Wednesday to turn over six years of Trump's tax returns within a week. Trump has broken with decades of presidential precedent by not voluntarily releasing his returns to the public.
In recent weeks, Trump has said that the American people elected him without seeing his taxes and would do it again.
"Remember, I got elected last time — the same exact issue," Trump said. "Frankly, the people don't care."
The president has told those close to him that the attempt to get his returns amounted to an invasion of his privacy and was a further example of the Democratic-led "witch hunt" — which he has called special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation — meant to damage him.
Trump has repeatedly asked aides about the status of the House request and has inquired about the "loyalty" of the top officials at the IRS, according to one outside adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Democrats didn't expect the department to comply, but they haven't sketched out their next steps.
Neal has adopted a methodical approach to seeking Trump's returns. He has the option of eventually seeking to subpoena the records or to go to court if Treasury does not comply, but it's not clear he'll adopt a more confrontational approach just yet.
Neal's initial letter didn't lay out any consequences for the IRS if it didn't comply, and a spokesman said a likely course would be a second, more insistent, letter.
"We intend to follow through with this," Neal said.
The request for Trump's tax filings is but one of many oversight efforts launched by Democrats after taking back the House in last fall's midterms. The law that Neal is relying on says the IRS "shall furnish" any tax return requested by the chairmen of key House and Senate committees.
Most tax lawyers believe the law is written in such a way that Mnuchin will ultimately likely have to furnish Trump's returns to Congress in some fashion, but there are also tight restrictions on the release of the information.
Mnuchin told lawmakers that his department will "follow the law," but he hasn't shared the department's interpretation of the statute.
The White House did not respond to questions as to whether the president asked Mnuchin or the IRS head to intervene. The president's outside attorney also did not respond to a request for comment.