Consovoy’s letter is one of the early moves in what is expected to be an extensive legal fight over who has the authority to release Trump’s tax returns.
On Wednesday, Neal formally requested that the Internal Revenue Service, which is part of the Treasury Department, turn over six years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns.
A 1924 law cited by Neal states that the treasury secretary “shall furnish . . . any return or return information specified” in a request from the head of the House or Senate tax-writing committees.
Trump has for months signaled he would resist attempts to compel him to turn over his taxes. And Friday’s letter from Consovoy states that the IRS should wait for a “formal legal opinion” from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel before divulging the returns.
The letter from his attorney, addressed to Treasury general counsel Brent J. McIntosh, echoes arguments made for months by congressional Republicans.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said that he would consult with department attorneys before making a decision about a request to turn over the returns. The fight is expected to be settled by the courts.
“The Tax Code zealously guards taxpayer privacy,” Consovoy said in his letter. “. . . It would be a gross abuse of power for the majority party to use tax returns as a weapon to attack, harass, and intimidate their political opponents.”
The White House has moved to block the release of the president’s tax returns, which have been the source of significant speculation since Trump refused to release them as a candidate in the 2016 presidential campaign.
Rudolph W. Giuliani, a lawyer for Trump, said he would not turn over “a single thing” to congressional Democrats, arguing that the opposition party was simply aiming to embarrass the president. Neal has said he is aiming to conduct oversight and debate legislative proposals over how federal tax laws are enforced against a U.S. president.
“They’ll be in court for two or three years on those taxes. It’s pure harassment,” Giuliani said in an interview. “They want his tax returns so they can find something even if nothing is there.”
Tim O’Brien, a financial journalist who has seen Trump’s tax returns but is under court order not to disclose details, said Trump’s main concerns are what kind of income he receives, what his philanthropic activities might have been, and whether he is compromised related to certain countries.
“This is something he is going to fight tooth and nail. It opens a vein,” O’Brien, who saw the tax returns as part of a lawsuit, said. “He’s the most financially conflicted president of the modern era. The tax returns are both emblematic of that and a potential road map of what his conflicts might look like.”
O’Brien said he was opposed vociferously by Trump at every turn when he sought to see what the real estate mogul was really worth.
“The first return we got from them was so redacted that it looked like a crossword puzzle,” O’Brien said. “Our lawyers ended up having to fight tooth and nail for them. He definitely didn’t want to go there.”
Trump has again recently asserted that he cannot release his tax returns because they are under audit, although numerous independent experts have said that does not prevent him from releasing the taxes.
Some critics rejected the contention that Treasury needed to wait for the Justice Department.
“It’s a stalling tactic, which is key to all of this,” said Steve Rosenthal, a tax policy expert at the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan think tank. “The strategy here is to delay this beyond the election.”