House Democrats likely to seek 10 years of Trump’s tax returns in coming weeks
WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are likely to request 10 years of President Donald Trump’s tax returns in coming weeks, tailoring their inquiry in a way they hope will survive a court battle, according to according to lawmakers and others involved in the discussions.
The exact parameters of the request are still in flux, including whether to seek tax returns related to Trump’s many business enterprises in addition to his personal returns.
But Democrats led by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., along with congressional lawyers, are in the advanced stages of preparing the request. They’re relying on a 1924 law that gives chairmen of House and Senate tax-writing committees broad powers to demand the tax returns of White House officials.
They said they are being deliberate so as not to make a mistake that jeopardizes the investigation.
“If we had done this a month and a half ago, we would not be prepared, we would be falling on our face, and we’d be looking at the rationale for what we’re doing,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., who along with some other Democrats has pushed for congressional action to get at the tax returns practically since Trump took office. “Would I have liked it to go faster? I started two years ago. Yes, of course.”
Pascrell, a member of Neal’s committee, would not give an estimate for when the inquiry could come, but he said he was advocating for a sweeping request for records, which would include both personal and business tax filings in search of a comprehensive view of Trump’s compliance with the law.
As House Democrats begin to roll out probes of the Trump administration on multiple fronts, some lawmakers say Trump’s tax returns could contain information critical to many of their inquiries, and as such could become the linchpin to their oversight responsibilities and the focus of one of the most important court fights they will wage.
Trump has made clear to associates that he has no plans to allow Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to turn over his personal tax records, according to three people who have been briefed on the discussions but spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The 1924 law does not appear to give Mnuchin much flexibility to deny a congressional request, as the law says he “shall” turn over the records.
But if he refuses, Democrats would probably try to compel Mnuchin to comply by filing a lawsuit in federal court. That could drag the process out for months, or more than a year, which could be one of Trump’s primary legal strategies, particularly if he thinks Republicans might take control of the House of Representatives during the 2020 elections.
“What the president will do is he will, first of all, respond grudgingly and slowly. They will then negotiate,” said former House speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga. “They will be subpoenaed. They will take that all the way to the Supreme Court.”
George Yin, former chief of staff for Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation, said there is no precedent for a treasury secretary to refuse to comply with a congressional request for tax returns, but if the matter goes to court, Democrats could be forced to prove the inquiry is part of Congress’s “lawmaking function or its oversight responsibilities.”
Congressional leaders have never used the 1924 law to seek the tax returns of a sitting U.S. president, but there has also not been a president in recent history who has refused to voluntarily disclose his tax returns. House Democrats included a new requirement for presidential candidates to release 10 years’ worth of personal tax returns in sweeping legislation on campaign finance and government ethics they plan to pass this week, although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made clear he won’t take up the bill.
During the 2016 campaign, Trump gave a variety of reasons for why he would not release his tax returns. One of the most prominent reasons was his claim that the tax returns were being audited by the Internal Revenue Service and that he would release them when that process is over. He repeated that claim in November, after Democrats won the midterm elections.
“Nobody turns over a (return) when it’s under audit,” he said during a news conference.
But that characterization came into question last week, when Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, told a House committee that his understanding was that Trump didn’t release his tax returns for a much different reason.
“What he didn’t want is to have an entire group of think tanks that are tax experts run through his tax return and start ripping it to pieces, and then he’ll end up in an audit and he’ll ultimately have taxable consequences, penalties and so on,” Cohen said, adding that, “I presume that he is not under audit.”
A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment about the tax return issue. In 2017, Mnuchin told a congressional committee that he wasn’t aware of whether Trump’s tax returns were being audited, as “I don’t have access to that, that’s within the IRS. I don’t have access to specific taxpayer-level information.”
Steve Moore, who was an economic adviser to Trump during the 2016 campaign, said he advised Trump to “never, ever, ever, ever release his tax returns.”
He said Democrats tried to make an issue of Trump’s refusal to release the tax returns during the 2016 campaign, and Trump’s victory in the election should serve as validation that voters weren’t particularly interested in what the returns said.
“It would be a total abuse of power and a violation of Donald Trump’s right of privacy,” Moore said.
Democrats have said they want to review Trump’s tax returns to see if there’s any evidence of conflicts of interest, inappropriate business relationships and improper influence by foreign governments. They’re also looking to understand the precise impact of the 2017 tax cuts on his personal finances, as well as whether he has used inappropriate or illegal tax schemes in the past.
“There’s always a legitimate reason to look at your president’s tax returns,” said Janice Mays, managing director of PwC and a former staff director for Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Tex., another member of the Ways and Means Committee, said Democrats must move as soon as possible because he believed it will take a long time to review the tax returns once they are provided.
“If the desire is to get this information and have it be properly analyzed, it’s essential action be taken immediately,” he said in an interview.
Neal’s office declined to comment. Ashley Etienne, a spokeswoman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the Ways and Means Committee was consulting with other committees to make sure House lawmakers “present the strongest possible case.”
But Gingrich said he believed the inquiry was part of a desperate attempt by Democrats to try to bring Trump down after previous efforts and investigations have failed. He said Democrats were trying to throw the “kitchen sink” at the White House because they have been unable to prove that Trump colluded with the Russian government in the run-up to the 2016 election, among other things.
He said that even if Democrats somehow were able to obtain the documents, they would be required under law to keep the documents confidential, something he believed would prove impossible for Democrats to do.
“Is there anybody in Washington who believes it will not be leaked?” he said.
House Democrats could hold a series of votes publicly release the records, but that could also force them to explain what the precise legislative purpose would be for such a move.
Mnuchin has said he would review any congressional inquiry regarding tax returns but has not committed to turning over any records. He could be pressed to explain his rationale as soon as next week, though, when he’s expected to testify before Neal’s committee.