Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he needed more time to review House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal’s request for six years of President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
Mnuchin wrote in a letter Wednesday to Neal, D-Mass., that he would personally supervise the review and that he would consult with the Justice Department. Wednesday was the deadline set by Neal in a request to IRS Commissioner Charles P. Rettig on April 3.
Neal had asserted his right under the Internal Revenue Code to ask for any tax return from the IRS. Section 6103 of that code states that the IRS “shall furnish” any return requested by either the House Ways and Means or Senate Finance chairmen.
Democrats contended that a 1982 Treasury order delegated the responsibility for complying with Section 6103 to the IRS commissioner, and that the tax laws also stipulate if Treasury wants to take that power back, it must first provide 30 days' notice to lawmakers.
But Mnuchin’s response made clear that it would be the Treasury secretary who would supervise his department’s review of Neal’s request.
“Given the seriousness of these issues, which bear no connection to actual tax administration, we have begun consultation with the Department of Justice to ensure that our response is fully consistent with the law and the Constitution,” Mnuchin wrote.
Neal released a three-sentence response to Mnuchin's letter.
“I received a letter this evening from Secretary Mnuchin related to my request to the IRS commissioner. The department has decided not to allow the IRS to comply with my request by the April 10 deadline,” Neal said. “I will consult with counsel and determine the appropriate response to the commissioner in the coming days.”
Mnuchin’s letter, while asking for more time, nonetheless indicated what the eventual response would be.
He referenced a committee finding from last year when Republicans controlled Ways and Means that seeking the president’s tax returns “would be an ‘abuse of authority’ and ‘set a dangerous precedent by targeting a single individual’s confidential tax returns and associated financial documents for disclosure’ for political reasons.”
Democrats have noted repeatedly that state tax collectors, various federal agencies and House Ways and Means chairmen frequently ask for confidential tax return information, and the decision to provide the information has always been made by the IRS commissioner, not the Treasury Secretary.
Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley, who has called Neal’s request “Nixonian to the core,” concurred with Mnuchin's response. “Secretary Mnuchin is right to consult with the Department of Justice before responding more fully,” Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a statement. “House Democrats’ unprecedented request has serious implications for all Americans and requires serious, careful analysis.”
Mnuchin’s response appears to put the ball back in Neal’s court, though the 70-year-old former mayor of Springfield, Mass., has been talking all along like he was preparing for a lengthy legal battle. In January, he told reporters he expected to proceed “methodically and judiciously.”
“One of the things you have to be mindful of is that this has to be a part of a carefully prepared and documented legal case,” Neal said at the time. “This has to be prepared in accordance with staff, House counsel, and an understanding that this is likely to become the basis of a long and arduous court case.”
The powers given the tax-writing committee chairmen stem from a 1924 law that had its origin in conflict of interest and bribery allegations against administration figures and those the administration did business with at the time.
Section 6103 of the tax code appears straightforward: “Upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Finance of the Senate, or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request . . . ”
According to a Congressional Research Service analysis, there appears to be “no substantive limitations” on Neal’s right to obtain the returns. But the provision “arguably is subject to the same legal limitations that generally attach to Congress’ use of other compulsory investigative tools;” that is, the inquiry must further a “legislative purpose,” the analysis adds.
Trump telegraphed his Treasury secretary's move earlier in the day, telling reporters he wouldn't release his tax returns since he’s still under audit.
The IRS has long declined to comment on whether he is indeed being audited. “Frankly, the people don’t care,” he said of voters who elected him despite his withholding the returns in 2016. “My finances are very clean.”
Mnuchin’s letter made no mention of an audit as a reason for withholding the returns, however.
Earlier Wednesday, Rettig told the Senate Finance Committee that “we anticipate responding” to Neal's request. But he made it clear that Treasury would be determining what sort of response, and on what timetable.
Senate Finance ranking member Ron Wyden asked Rettig whether he agreed with the legal interpretation that the Treasury secretary delegated to the IRS commissioner the task of complying with such requests.
“I’m aware of the delegation order, as is Treasury, but you must be aware that we’re a bureau of the Treasury and the Treasury, you know, supervises us,” Rettig said. He added that no one at the White House has sought to influence his decision or pressure him not to release Trump’s returns.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.