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White House Lawyers Discussed Trump Tax Returns With Treasury Department

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies before the U.S. House of Representatives last month.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies before the U.S. House of Representatives last month.

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET

White House lawyers communicated with the Treasury Department about how to handle House Democrats' requestfor President Trump's tax returns even before they made it, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday.

The law invoked last week by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., empowers Congress to obtain the returns of any taxpayer directly from the Internal Revenue Service. The process was designed to bypass the White House and give Congress equal authority.

Neal gave the IRS until this Wednesday to respond to the committee's request. Mnuchin told reporters after the hearing that the official response to Neal's letter could come within that time frame.

Under questioning by Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., at a House subcommittee hearing, Mnuchin said: "I want to be very clear and not misleading. I acknowledge that there were conversations. I am not briefed on the full extent of those conversations."

Quigley told Mnuchin "we would greatly appreciate it" if Treasury would report what White House officials had said.

IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, making a subsequent appearance before the same House subcommittee, said no one at the tax agency has had any communication with the White House about disclosing presidential tax returns to Congress.

Rettig did not indicate whether the IRS would comply with Neal's request by Wednesday.

During a later appearance before the House Financial Services Committee, Mnuchin said the Treasury Department would follow the law and cooperate with Congress. "We would not ever ask for the White House's permission on this nor did they give us permission. As I said, we consulted, which I believe was appropriate of our legal department," Mnuchin said.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said the department's communications about Trump's tax returns were "deeply troubling" and violated "the spirit of the law if not the letter."

But Mnuchin insisted that he would protect the Treasury Department's independence on the tax return issue. "I'm not afraid of being fired at all."

President Trump has turned away all requests that he voluntarily disclose his taxes, as other recent presidents have done. Democrats contend he is withholding his returns to hide financial details that could lead to political or legal problems.

Some Democrats, such as Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, have been working toward this request almost since the day Trump took the oath of office in 2017.

The Trump administration and its allies have launched several counterattacks.

One of Trump's personal lawyers, William Consovoy, has said that the House Ways and Means Committee "cannot legally request" the information.

GOP members of Congress have sought to give the administration cover by casting the request as politically motivated. "It seems like we have a chairman and potentially a party that is attempting to weaponize the IRS for political gain," said Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga.

Last Sunday, White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney gave a political assessment, saying on Fox News the issue was "already litigated" during the 2016 election. "Voters knew the president could have given his tax returns. They knew that he didn't and they elected him anyway, which is, of course, what drives the Democrats crazy."

When asked whether Democrats would ever get access to the president's tax returns, Mulvaney said: "Never. Nor should they."

But George Yin, a tax law professor at the University of Virginia, said past case law should give the administration no leeway. "The provision does not give any basis for the secretary of the Treasury to refuse the request," he said.

He said the provision now being invoked by Democrats appears to have been used in cases ranging from President Richard Nixon's tax returns in the 1970s to the alleged IRS targeting of conservative tax-exempt groups in the Obama administration. The evidence is circumstantial, according to Yin, since records and correspondence haven't leaked and are exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests.

The provision dates to 1924, when Congress was investigating scandals from the administration of President Warren G. Harding, who had died the year before. Among the scandals: Millionaire banker and investor Andrew Mellon had held on to investments when he became Treasury secretary and had allegedly used inside information to profit.

"The parallels between what happened that led to the creation of this law in 1924 and today's circumstances are really very close," Yin said.

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Corrected: April 8, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous version of this story, the initial reference to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig incorrectly gave his last name as Retting.
Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.