But Democrats led by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. 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 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 is advocating for a sweeping request for records, including 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 of 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 and spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, said it was premature for the president and his legal team to decide how to respond to a request for his tax returns until one is formally made. But he warned House Democrats against overreach and “creating a circus.”
“I can’t say yet” what the president and his lawyers would do, Giuliani said. “You face it when it becomes an issue, and that would deserve a lot of legal consideration.”
The 1924 law does not appear to give Mnuchin much flexibility to deny a congressional request — it says he “shall” turn over the records.
But if he refused, 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 retake control of the House of Representatives in 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, a 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 that 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 no president in recent history 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 legislation on campaign finance and government ethics that 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 that he would not release his tax returns. One of the most prominent was his claim that the returns were being audited by the Internal Revenue Service and that he would release them when that process was 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, “I presume that he is not under audit.”
In 2017, Mnuchin told a congressional committee that he didn’t know whether Trump’s tax returns were being audited, because “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.”
Moore said Democrats tried to make an issue of Trump’s refusal to release the returns during the campaign, but Trump’s victory in the election should serve as validation that voters aren’t particularly interested in what the returns say.
“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 whether there is evidence of conflicts of interest, inappropriate business relationships or 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 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, a managing director of PwC who spent 40 years on the House Ways and Means Committee as a Democratic aide.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), another member of the Ways and Means Committee, said Democrats must move as quickly as possible because he believes 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 Ways and Means is consulting with other committees to make sure House lawmakers “present the strongest possible case.”
But Gingrich said he believes the inquiry is part of a desperate attempt by Democrats to try to bring Trump down after previous efforts and investigations failed. He said Democrats are 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.
Gingrich said that even if Democrats were able to obtain the documents, they would be required under law to keep them confidential, something he believes would prove impossible for Democrats to do.
“Is there anybody in Washington who believes it will not be leaked?” he said.
House Democrats could vote to publicly release the records, but that could 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.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday suggested that a majority of Americans think that Trump should release his tax returns and that Congress should investigate the matter if he doesn’t provide the records.
Philip Rucker contributed to this report.