Five things to watch in Trump tax-return fight

House Democrats this week formally requested President TrumpDonald John Trump2020 Democrats spar over socialism ahead of first debate Senate passes .5 billion border bill, setting up fight with House 'Teflon Don' avoids the scorn of the 'family values' GOP — again MORE's tax returns from the IRS, kicking off a new battle with the administration.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard NealRichard Edmund NealOn The Money: Powell asserts Fed's independence amid new Trump attacks | House approves 3 billion spending package | CBO projects 'unprecedented' debt levels by 2049 | Democrats struggle with Trump tax law provision Democrats struggle with repeal of key Trump tax provision Trump's tax returns — DOJ trying to put off the inevitable? MORE (D-Mass.) asked for six years of both Trump’s personal tax returns and the returns of several of his business entities.

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Trump, who has long said he won’t release his tax returns because he’s under audit, quickly indicated that he did not want the administration to comply with the request.

Given the disagreements between Democrats and the administration, the matter is widely expected to result in a court battle.

Here are five things to watch in the fight for Trump’s tax returns.

 

What legal arguments are emerging on both sides?

Democrats and their supporters say that the law provides no leeway for the administration to deny their request.

They point to the fact that Neal made the request under a provision of the federal tax code that states that Treasury secretary “shall furnish” tax returns upon request from the chairmen of Congress’s tax committees, provided that documents associated with a particular taxpayer are viewed in a closed session.

Courts have ruled in the past that congressional requests for information need to be complied with when they have a legitimate legislative purpose.

Democrats say their request has that. In his letter to the IRS, Neal focused on the Ways and Means Committee’s interest in legislative proposals and oversight pertaining to the IRS’s audits of presidents.

Trump and Republicans, however, are already starting to argue that the request doesn’t have a legitimate legislative purpose.

An outside lawyer for Trump, William Consovoy, said in a letter to the Treasury Department on Friday that Neal doesn’t really want Trump’s tax returns to examine the IRS, and that the request is about “scoring political points” against the president.

Consovoy also said that it would set a bad precedent for the IRS to provide the returns because it would allow politicians to use tax returns to harass their political opponents. And he argued that it’s inappropriate for Neal to request returns related to an ongoing IRS audit.

 

Who takes the lead on defending Trump?

Trump has retained Consovoy to represent him and his business entities with regard to the request. But there are also a number of administration officials who could be crucial in any attempt to fight the requests for Trump’s tax returns.

One official who is being closely watched is Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinFive things to watch as Trump heads to G-20 in Japan Mnuchin: We were 'about 90 percent of the way there' on China trade deal The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? MORE, since the IRS is part of Treasury and the statue Democrats invoked specifically mentions the Treasury secretary. Mnuchin is one of Trump’s most loyal allies.

Mnuchin has said he would discuss the legality of a request for Trump’s tax returns with Treasury’s lawyers. Consovoy’s letter was addressed to Treasury General Counsel Brent McIntosh.

Another official to watch is IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, to whom Neal’s letter was addressed. The IRS typically handles requests under the tax code section Neal invoked.

Trump also wants Attorney General William BarrWilliam Pelham BarrThe Hill's 12:30 Report: Anticipation high ahead of first debate Attorney General Barr plays bagpipes at conference The Hill's Morning Report - Democratic debates: Miami nice or spice? MORE to get involved.

When reporters asked Trump if he would tell the IRS to not provide his returns to Democrats, the president said, "They’ll speak to my lawyers, and they’ll speak to the attorney general.” And Consovoy’s letter said that the IRS should not provide Neal with Trump’s tax returns until the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel has provided an opinion.

 

Do divisions among Democrats deepen during the fight?

Neal made the request for Trump’s tax returns several months after becoming Ways and Means Committee chairman, saying he wanted to be methodical because he expects the issue to end up in court. But some progressives were frustrated that he didn’t make the request earlier.

Liberal groups that were pressuring Neal praised his request, and several are now planning to focus efforts on making sure that the administration fulfills the chairman’s request. But they’re not expected to completely take pressure off of Neal and Democratic leaders.

Tax March spokesman Ryan Thomas said that his group and its partner organizations will still press Democrats to demand that the IRS provide the documents, but that “a lot of our efforts will be pressuring the IRS to comply.”

Will Simons, press secretary for Need to Impeach, a group founded by billionaire Tom Steyer, said that the group plans to stay active in Neal’s district to ensure that lawmakers release the information they learn during their investigations.

 

How much do voters care about the fight?

Several of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have already released their own tax returns in an effort to contrast themselves with Trump, and more are expected to follow suit in the coming days.

But it’s unclear how large of an issue Democrats' fight for Trump’s tax returns will be for voters.

There are some indications that the tax-return issue can energize Democrats. About 125,000 people attended Tax March events in 2017 to urge Trump to release his returns, according to the group.

But Trump won the 2016 election even though Democrats repeatedly attacked him then for refusing to release his returns. Some Democratic strategists think the party's candidates should focus more on issues such as health care than on investigations of Trump.

 

Will the public ever see Trump’s returns?

While Neal wants the IRS to provide Trump’s returns by April 10, the odds are high that he won’t get them by then, given the president’s opposition to the request.

Democrats have been bracing themselves for a court fight, and such a battle may end up being lengthy.

Andy Grewal, a law professor at the University of Iowa, said that it could take a while for the courts to  decide whether the House would even have the right to sue over the matter.

“Just the question of whether they have the right to sue could take years to resolve,” he said.

If Democrats receive Trump’s tax returns, the documents wouldn’t immediately become public. For return information to become public, the Ways and Means Committee would need to include it in a report and vote to submit that report to the full House.

“The law’s very clear: You can’t just make things public once you get them,” Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellDemocrats struggle with repeal of key Trump tax provision Congressional scorekeeper: Repealing SALT deduction cap would benefit high earners Democrats not keen to reignite Jerusalem embassy fight MORE (D-N.J.), a Ways and Means Committee member, told The Hill. “So we’ll decide by vote whether we expose anything to the public.”