House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal formally asked the IRS Wednesday for six years of President Trump’s tax returns and set a deadline of April 10 to get the documents.
Signaling a fight ahead, Trump told reporters later he was “not inclined” to comply with Neal’s demand.
As chairman of the House’s tax-writing panel, Neal has the authority to ask for any tax return from the Treasury Secretary, who oversees the IRS. However, any returns supplied about a particular taxpayer can be furnished only when the committee is sitting in closed executive session, unless the taxpayer consents to disclosure.
Neal’s letter, sent to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, also seeks a report on whether any of the tax returns had been “under any type of examination or audit” and “the issue(s) under examination.”
Trump has been criticized for being the first president since Richard Nixon to not voluntarily release his tax returns. In a statement accompanying his letter, Neal said the request was about “policy, not politics,” and “in no way based on emotion of the moment or partisanship.”
Neal said the information was necessary to better inform the legislative process and to determine how well the IRS performed its duty to audit the tax returns of sitting presidents.
By law, the tax returns of the president and vice president are automatically audited by the IRS. Neal, however, is asking for returns dating back to 2013, before Trump announced his candidacy for president.
Asked about Neal’s letter requesting six years of his tax returns, Trump said to reporters: “Is that all? 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. But until such time as I’m not under audit, I would not be inclined to do it.”
‘No wiggle room’
If the chairman of either of the tax committees in Congress asks for the president’s tax returns, there is “no wiggle room” for the Treasury Secretary to deny the request, George K. Yin, a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law and former Joint Committee on Taxation chief of staff, told a House Ways and Means subcommittee in February.
Another witness at that hearing, Joseph J. Thorndike, director of the Tax History Project, called the long-standing practice of presidential candidates disclosing their tax returns “tradition, not a law.”
House Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady said Neal’s action “weaponizes” the tax code for political purposes, echoing comments from Senate Finance Chairman Charles E. Grassley in December. Brady said the move “sets a dangerous precedent and weakens American’s privacy rights.”
A Grassley spokesperson said Wednesday that using the release of Trump’s returns “to exact political damage would be opening the door to future abuses of power and would poison the public trust in the ability of the IRS to keep personal information private.”
Neal’s request has been months in the making. He has said he started having conversations with legal staff as early as December after he was named chairman-designate of Ways and Means. Legal experts expect the White House to fight the request and a court case to follow, and Neal said earlier this year that he will proceed “methodically and judiciously” under that assumption.
At a Ways and Means hearing last month, Mnuchin was peppered with questions about whether he would release Trump’s tax returns.
“The answer is if I receive a request ... I will consult with the legal department within Treasury and I will follow the law,” Mnuchin said. “We will protect the president as we would protect any” other taxpayer, he added.
Neal’s authority to seek the president’s tax returns stems from Section 6103 of the tax code: “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.”
Senate Finance ranking member Ron Wyden said in a statement that the law “is crystal clear — the Treasury Department must provide tax returns to the Ways & Means and Finance Committees when the chairman requests them.”
Wyden added that Grassley “should make the same request so Senate Finance Committee members are also able to access them.”
Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.