Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says the department hasn't decided whether to comply with a demand by a key House Democrat to deliver President Donald Trump's tax returns and won't meet a Wednesday deadline to provide them.
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In a letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., who asked for Trump's returns a week ago, Mnuchin said Treasury will consult with the Justice Department and "carefully" review the request further.
"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.
He said 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 said in a statement that he "will consult with counsel and determine the appropriate response to the commissioner in the coming days." Under the law, the IRS commissioner is required to provide access to any taxpayer's returns when directed by the chairmen of the House or Senate tax-writing committees.
Mnuchin said Neal's request raised important questions of "constitutional scope of congressional investigative authority, the legitimacy of the asserted legislative purpose, and the constitutional rights of American citizens."
He quoted Capitol Hill Republicans in calling the request "Nixonian" and warned that it could set a precedent for disclosing personal tax information for political purposes.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump weighed in, telling reporters that he won't agree to release his returns while he is under audit.
Trump said, "I would love to give them, but I'm not going to do it while I'm under audit." 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 the president's tax returns within a week. Trump has broken with decades of presidential precedent by not voluntarily releasing his returns to the public.
Trump's position has long been that he is under audit and therefore could not release his returns. But in recent weeks, he has added to the argument, saying publicly and privately that the American people elected him without seeing his taxes and would do so 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 were an invasion of his privacy and 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. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., speaking before Mnuchin's response was delivered, said it may take Neal a couple of days to issue his own response. House Democrats are at a party retreat in the Virginia suburbs of Washington.
"We're not going to fold on this. We feel like this is clearly important to our oversight responsibilities," Kildee said. "The law says pretty clearly that the chairman can order a return. It doesn't say 'for everybody except the president.'"
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, sent a week ago, 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 Wednesday, speaking before Mnuchin got back to him. "I'll let you know fast."
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. Neal is relying on a 1920s-era law that says the IRS "shall furnish" any tax return requested by the chairmen of key House and Senate committees.
Mnuchin told lawmakers that his department will "follow the law."
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.