‘We must…review whether the IRS is carrying out its responsibilities…’
(Laura Davison and Anna Edgerton, Bloomberg News) House Democrats on Wednesday formally demanded that the IRS turn over six years of personal and business tax returns for President Donald Trump, setting the stage for a clash with the White House and in the courts.
Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts sent a letter to Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Charles Rettig, citing in part Congress’ oversight responsibility to review the president’s business activities before and during his first term.
He said he wanted the returns by April 10, but that deadline was expected to be negotiable. Trump told reporters he would refuse the request. The decision, however, is up to the Treasury Department.
Neal cast his letter as a legislative oversight duty to ensure the IRS was doing its routine function of auditing every sitting president’s and vice president’s return, and not as part of Democrats’ broad investigations of Trump’s personal and business finances.
“We must obtain President Trump’s tax returns and review whether the IRS is carrying out its responsibilities,” Neal’s letter said. “The committee has a duty to examine whether congressional action may be needed to require such audits, and to oversee that they are conducted properly.”
Trump said at the White House that his returns are under audit and that he doesn’t intend to turn anything over until that is finished.
“Until such time as I’m not under audit I would not be inclined to do it,” he told reporters.
No law prevents a taxpayer from releasing returns that are under audit.
Neal is preparing for the request to become a protracted legal battle. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin could slow-walk the request, which would likely lead the Democrats to sue. If the request ends up in the courts, the issue could likely linger unresolved until after the 2020 presidential election.
Mnuchin told the Ways and Means Committee in March that he’d follow the law if the committee requested the returns. But he added, “We will protect the president as we would protect any individual taxpayer under their rights.”
Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the senior Republican on Ways and Means, called the request “an abuse of the tax-writing committees’ statutory authority,” and said that “weaponizing our tax code sets a dangerous precedent and weakens Americans’ privacy right.”
Federal law allows the Ways and Means and Senate Finance committees and the Joint Committee on Taxation to ask the IRS for the returns of any filer, but some legal scholars believe a request requires Congress to have a legislative purpose, including general oversight.
To that point, Neal’s letter said, “This request is about policy, not politics.”
The Treasury Department and IRS did not immediately respond to a request to comment.
Neal requested Trump’s personal tax returns as well as the documents for many of the entities that own Trump’s business holdings, including the entity that owns the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.
“Many, if not most, of the president’s businesses are operated through separate entities that may report income, deductions or other tax items included on his individual income tax returns,” according to a statement from Ways and Means. “It is unknown whether the scope of any mandatory examination includes a review of underlying business activities required to be reported on the individual income tax return.”
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the senior Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said the law was “crystal clear — the Treasury Department must provide tax returns to the Ways and Means and Finance committees when the chairman requests them.”
Wyden also said that Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Finance Committee chairman and an Iowa Republican, should make the same request.
But Grassley, who has said that if Ways and Means got the returns he would like to see them as well, said Wednesday he “will not go along with efforts to weaponize the authority of tax-writing committees to access tax returns for political purposes.”
University of Virginia law professor George Yin said that at first blush, Neal’s letter seemed to meet the relatively modest requirements needed to make the request.
“I don’t see any reason not to comply with the request,” said Yin, who has researched the statutory requirements.
Yin said the statute specifies that the letter should be sent to the Treasury secretary, rather than the IRS commissioner, but said he was uncertain whether that made any practical difference.
Making the returns public is another matter. Then Neal would have to specify a legislative reason for making them public.
Congress released private tax information during the Watergate scandal involving President Richard Nixon and during the more recent allegations that the IRS targeted tea party groups during President Barack Obama’s administration.
Trump broke with 40 years of presidential campaign tradition in refusing to release his personal tax returns before he was elected, claiming at one point that he was under audit, and at another that it was an invasion of his privacy. After the vote, his administration said he wouldn’t release them because Americans had elected him without seeing the returns.
Democrats in the party’s progressive wing had been pushing Neal to hurry his request for the returns, asserting that he was not moving fast enough. Some even threatened a possible primary challenge if he didn’t act more quickly.
(With assistance by Alyza Sebenius, and Joe Light.)
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