The IRS was given until April 10 to respond. The panel’s chairman was able to make the request because of a 1924 law that gives the chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee broad powers to request and receive the tax returns of any American.
“Congress, as a coequal branch of government, has a duty to conduct oversight of departments and officials,” Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) said in a statement. “The Ways and Means Committee in particular has a responsibility to conduct oversight of our voluntary federal tax system and determine how Americans — including those elected to our highest office — are complying with those laws.”
Trump broke with precedent when he refused as a presidential candidate, and then when elected, to release his tax returns, something every president since Richard M. Nixon has done. The explanation he gave was that he was being audited, although numerous experts have said that an audit would not have prevented him from releasing his returns.
At an event at the White House on Wednesday after Neal issued his request, Trump repeated the same explanation.
“We are under audit, despite what people said, and working that out — I’m always under audit, it seems, but I’ve been under audit for many years because the numbers are big, and I guess when you have a name, you’re audited,” Trump said. “But until such time as I’m not under audit, I would not be inclined to do it.”
Privately, Trump has told White House advisers that he does not plan to hand over his tax returns to Congress — and that he would fight the issue to the Supreme Court, hoping to stall it until after the 2020 election, according to two administration officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the conversations. Treasury officials will not comply with the request until they are compelled to do so, the officials said.
Neal’s request, which was made in a two-page letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, seeks broad details about Trump’s personal tax returns from 2013 to 2018 — including whether the returns are or have been under audit.
Neal also sought information from entities within Trump’s sprawling business empire.
One of them, the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, is an umbrella entity that controls more than 100 other businesses, including his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. Some of those businesses also own a variety of Trump’s homes, hotels, golf clubs, his properties in Scotland and his namesake hotel in downtown Washington.
Neal also made requests of DTTM Operations LLC and DTTM Operations Managing Member Corp, which own a number of other Trump LLCs. These businesses collect licensing fees from various Trump-branded products. On his personal financial disclosures, Trump has never reported any income from these entities.
Neal’s letter was carefully worded. Democrats had obsessed for weeks over the language because they thought it would need to stand up to a court challenge. The letter attempted to explain that the information requests were squarely within Congress’s legal authority.
It said Neal’s committee was “considering legislative proposals and conducting oversight related to our Federal tax laws, including, but not limited to, the extent to which the IRS audits and enforces the Federal tax laws against the President.” It added that the committee needed to determine how closely the IRS was scrutinizing Trump’s tax returns, including those of his businesses.
Neal did not say what he will do if the IRS does not comply with his request. A spokesman, Daniel Rubin, said: “We believe the law is clear, so we expect the IRS to comply. But we’re working through what our options are now, including all legal options, if they don’t comply.”
The request poses a major test for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who becomes the first Cabinet member in modern history tasked with deciding whether to turn over his boss’s tax returns to the opposition party.
It is unclear what legal argument Mnuchin could make to refuse the request, as the tax records would be unlikely to be considered protected under “executive privilege” because they do not pertain to Trump’s actions during his time in the White House.
The law that allows Neal to request the returns says the treasury secretary “shall” turn over the relevant records. It does not appear to give Mnuchin much wiggle room.
Congressional Democrats have launched a number of investigations into Trump’s financial dealings and into allegations of abuse of power and public corruption. They think that the information contained in his tax returns could be critical to answering many of their questions, including whether he misrepresented his wealth to insurers and banks, and whether he has financial foreign-government ties that could cloud his judgment on foreign policy matters related to Russia or Saudi Arabia.
Mnuchin testified before Neal’s committee several weeks ago and was asked whether he would comply with such a request. He declined to answer, saying only that he would consult with his legal counsel. He remarked, however, that there appeared to be little precedent for Congress to seek the tax records of an elected official.
“I’m not aware if there’s ever been a request for an elected official’s tax return, but we will follow the law, and we will protect the president as we would protect any individual taxpayer under their rights,” Mnuchin said.
He also said he had not discussed the tax return matter with Trump or any other White House officials.
Neal’s letter was addressed to Rettig, a Trump appointee. But Mnuchin has signaled that he will be in the driver’s seat in making the ultimate decision on how to proceed. The IRS is a division of the Treasury Department.
Neal has been under pressure from some Democrats this year to move quickly on the tax returns request, given that the effort could lead to lengthy court battles.
“I take the authority to make this request very seriously, and I approach it with the utmost care and respect. This request is about policy, not politics,” Neal said in his letter to the IRS. “My actions reflect an abiding reverence for our democracy and our institutions, and are in no way based on emotion of the moment or partisanship.”
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he views Neal’s request as political. Grassley added that he does not think he will be making a similar request for Trump’s returns — although Grassley has said previously that if House Democrats get Trump’s tax returns, he will want his committee to have them, too. Along with Neal, Grassley is the other congressional lawmaker with the legal power to request a person’s tax returns.
“I don’t think that things that Nixon and LBJ did to use the IRS for political purposes are legitimate, and I see this as political,” Grassley said. “I’m much in favor of any committee member, House or Senate, doing any oversight they want to of whether the laws are faithfully executed, because that’s our job under constitutional oversight. But doing it for political purposes is not legitimate.”
Rachael Bade contributed to this report.