WASHINGTON ― Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said Friday that the administration will not comply with a subpoena for copies of President Donald Trump’s tax returns, setting up yet another legal showdown with Democrats.
Democrats’ request “lacks a legitimate legislative purpose” and the Treasury Department is therefore “not authorized” to hand over the documents, Mnuchin said in a letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.).
Neal had requested the documents under a longstanding federal law giving Congress access to private tax information. Mnuchin said he’s not authorized to produce the documents, but the law actually doesn’t authorize him to refuse.
“The law, by its terms, does not allow for discretion as to whether to comply with a request for tax returns and return information,” Neal said in a statement responding to Mnuchin’s letter.
The tax returns are just one part of a broader standoff between the Trump administration and Congress. Lawmakers have a constitutional right to oversee the executive branch, but the White House has been stonewalling demands for testimony and documents.
Democrats will probably be at the mercy of federal courts to enforce their subpoenas, although some lawmakers have talked about dusting off the legislature’s own power to force compliance through jail or fines.
Neal asked for six years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns last month and followed through with the subpoena last week after Mnuchin refused the initial request.
“I didn’t think that they would turn it over,” Neal told HuffPost on Thursday, before Mnuchin had officially defied the subpoena.
Neal declined to discuss next steps but has previously said he would sue in federal court and ask a judge to enforce the subpoena. Courts have repeatedly ordered executive branch officials to cooperate with subpoenas, but the process typically takes longer than election cycles, meaning Trump could be out of office before Democrats can win.
Neal’s subpoena is just one of 10 that Democrats have issued. A subpoena is a legally enforceable demand for information.
“I’m concerned that we want to get this done as rapidly as possible and that we want to figure out how to expedite the court fights as rapidly as possible,” House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.), who subpoenaed for an unredacted copy of the special counsel investigation into the president’s 2016 campaign and subsequent efforts to obstruct investigations, said Thursday.
One difference between the other subpoenas and the request for the tax returns is that there’s a federal law explicitly stating the Treasury Department is supposed to hand over any tax returns requested by chairs of congressional committees that write tax laws. The statute should give Democrats an even stronger position in court.
Another option would be for Democrats to revive the congressional power of “inherent contempt” rather than rely on courts. Lawmakers theoretically could use inherent contempt proceedings to jail uncooperative officials, but Congress hasn’t done so since the 1930s. Democrats have also said they could impose fines.
Ways and Means member Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said Democrats shouldn’t let Trump run out the clock.
“Congress shrinks its own power if it does not deploy its most credible remedy ― inherent contempt,” Doggett said.
Mnuchin said Tuesday during a hearing on the Treasury Department’s budget that he would be glad to let a court deal with the tax return request, ostensibly because he didn’t want to “set a precedent” of politicians seizing private tax information to damage their enemies. Another possibility is that Mnuchin just doesn’t want to hand over documents that his boss would like to keep secret, and would prefer if a court forced his hand.
“If this issue goes through the courts, I think it’s better that we have the court’s interpretation,” Mnuchin said.
This article has been updated with additional comments from lawmakers and with more details about Democrats’ options.