Dems inch closer to demanding Trump’s tax returns
House Democrats are edging closer to formally requesting President Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department, as lawmakers ramp up their arguments for why it’s necessary to examine the documents.
While Democratic leaders and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) haven’t announced exactly when they will make the request, several lawmakers say action is likely to come sooner rather than later.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) predicted Tuesday that the request will likely be made in “the next couple of weeks.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, declined to weigh in on timing but said, “Chairman Neal is obviously trying to wrap this process up.”
Ultimately, it will be up to Neal to send the letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin requesting Trump’s tax returns. The Massachusetts Democrat has been taking a methodical approach because he thinks the matter is likely to result in a lengthy court battle.
Neal told reporters Tuesday that he will make the request “when the case is ready.” On Wednesday, he said it’s important to take the right approach with the request because it will likely be “under the magnifying glass” of courts, and that his staff has been “working pretty hard” on the matter.
A provision in the federal tax code gives the chairmen of Congress’s two tax committees the authority to request returns and related information from the Treasury Department and then review the documents behind closed doors. A committee vote could follow if lawmakers want to send a report to the full House or Senate, which could make public some or all of the tax information.
Congress has rarely used that authority. Most recently was several years ago when Republicans were investigating the IRS’s scrutiny of applications by conservative groups for tax-exempt status. Congress also used it in the 1970s as part of an investigation into former President Nixon’s taxes.
But it’s also unusual that Trump has not voluntarily released any of his returns, something every other president in recent decades has done. Trump has said he won’t release his returns while they are under audit, though the IRS has said audits don’t prevent people from making their own tax information public.
House Democrats have said obtaining Trump’s tax returns is one of their top oversight priorities, arguing they want to learn about any conflicts of interest the president may have — particularly involving foreign governments.
But Democrats are concerned that the Treasury Department will sit on any request for the documents or refuse to turn them over, though the statute says the Treasury “shall furnish” the requested documents.
A Treasury Department spokesperson reiterated Wednesday that Mnuchin would examine any request with the department’s lawyers to determine its legality. The Treasury has said in the past that the department’s general counsel would be involved in the review process.
Democrats have taken steps to explain why it’s important to obtain Trump’s tax documents, in an effort to bolster their case if the issue ends up in court.
Neal, for example, has consulted with fellow committee leaders.
House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said Wednesday that Neal has asked other committee chairmen “what it was that we thought would be helpful in his presentation to get the tax returns.”
Democrats have also used hearings to lay the foundation to seek Trump’s returns.
A Ways and Means subpanel held a hearing last month on tax law and legislative proposals relating to presidential tax returns. Some Democrats’ questions at the hearing were aimed at establishing Congress’s authority to request and publicly release tax returns.
Additionally, Democrats think that last week’s testimony from Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, before the House Oversight and Reform Committee heightened the need to examine the president’s tax returns.
During the hearing, Cohen testified that Trump would undervalue his assets to reduce his real-estate tax bills, while he would inflate the value of his assets for insurance purposes. He also said he wasn’t sure if Trump was under audit by the IRS during the 2016 president campaign.
Two days after the hearing, an aide for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) put out one of the most forceful comments from the Speaker’s office about Democrats’ intentions to get Trump’s tax returns.
“Every day the American people and Congress learn more about President Trump’s improprieties, from conflicts of interest to influence peddling, potential tax evasion and violations of the Constitution — all roads leading back to President Trump’s finances,” Pelosi spokeswoman Ashley Etienne said in a statement. “These improprieties, and the lack of transparency around them, give the House legitimate legislative, oversight and legal reasons to review the President’s tax returns.”
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), a Ways and Means Committee member, said Tuesday that the Cohen hearing “strongly makes the case why you need business returns.”
“Given the way Trump has intermingled his personal, his business, and the public business, we really need the business returns,” he said.
House Democrats will also put Trump’s tax returns in the spotlight later this week when they vote on their broad election-reform bill, known as H.R. 1, that would require presidents, vice presidents and major-party nominees for those positions to release 10 years of their individual tax returns.
Progressive lawmakers are pushing Neal to request both Trump’s personal and business tax returns. Neal said the scope of his request will depend on the legal advice he receives.
If Neal is able to obtain Trump’s tax returns, Ways and Means members would be permitted to look at the documents privately, in addition to committee staff and the Joint Committee on Taxation staff who are designated to review them.
But until the Ways and Means panel votes to send a report to the House, lawmakers and staff won’t be able to say much, if anything, in public about what’s in the documents, since it’s a crime to make an unauthorized disclosure of tax returns.
“He would have to be very careful, and he would be well-advised to say nothing,” University of Virginia law professor George Yin said, referring to Neal.
Republicans have criticized Democrats’ interest in obtaining Trump’s returns, saying that doing so would be abuse of power and an invasion of privacy.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) — the only other lawmaker who can request tax returns from Treasury — said he hopes nobody in Congress requests Trump’s documents. But he also said that if House Democrats end up obtaining the returns, he will also seek to get a copy of them from Treasury.
“If the House of Representatives is going to get them, then I want the Senate Finance Committee to have them,” he told reporters Wednesday.
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