In a letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chair Richard Neal (D-Mass.), Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin described the request as unprecedented, and said he is consulting with the Justice Department on how to respond.
“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.
House Democrats have asked for six years of Trump’s taxes under a law that says certain committee chairs can ask the Treasury secretary to hand over private tax information.
The law does not actually give the secretary leeway to say no, but it doesn’t specify what should happen if he does refuse. It says that if the chair of the Ways and Means Committee asks for someone’s tax return, “the Secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request,” and that the committee can later vote to submit the documents to the full House.
Congress has used the law to publicly disclose tax information only a few times in its history, most recently by House Republicans in 2014. Lawmakers can also invoke the provision to obtain tax information and not necessarily disclose it, which Senate Republicans did this year as part of an investigation into tax-exempt hospitals. Private tax information obtained under the law can only be made public with a committee vote; Democrats have not laid out any plans to make Trump’s taxes public.
Experts have said they are unaware of any instance of a Treasury secretary refusing a request under the section.
Neal made the long-awaited request for Trump’s tax info last week, giving this Wednesday as a deadline. The Treasury Department has hinted since last year that it would not provide the documents.
Neal had directed the request to the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, which is the Treasury Department bureau that enforces tax laws. Democrats have argued that the law so obviously entitles them to the tax returns that Mnuchin didn’t even need to get involved.
“I will consult with counsel and determine the appropriate response to the commissioner in the coming days,” Neal said in response to Mnuchin’s letter.
Neal spent three months holding hearings and drafting his request letter in order to put Democrats on the strongest legal footing in what is likely to be an unprecedented court battle. Several legal scholars have said the administration is in a weak position, but there’s not much consensus about how the case will proceed or when it will end.
Trump said last week that “the law is 100 percent on my side,” which is 100 percent not true ― but the president’s team hopes a federal judge will say that Neal’s use of the law somehow flouts the Constitution.
“The Committee’s request raises serious issues concerning the constitutional scope of congressional investigative authority, the legitimacy of the asserted legislative purpose, and the constitutional rights of American citizens,” Mnuchin wrote on Wednesday.
Trump is the first modern president not to voluntarily disclose any tax information and the first not to divest from his private businesses once he took office. His former lawyer said this year that Trump used fraud to avoid paying taxes.
If the tax fight winds up at the Supreme Court, it could become a loyalty test for Trump-appointed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said last year.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Gingrich described Trump’s lifelong tendency to hire lawyers whenever he has a problem. He said that if Democrats go after the president’s tax returns, the administration will “be trapped into appealing to the Supreme Court, and we’ll see whether or not the Kavanaugh fight was worth it.”
This story has been updated with comment from Neal.