President Trump’s chief of staff Mick Mulvaney declared Sunday that congressional Democrats would “never” see the president’s tax returns, a seeming rejection of House oversight authority that paralleled the growing confrontation over the contents of the Mueller report and other fights over investigations of the president’s conduct.
Leading Democrats responded to the question of whether the Internal Revenue Service should provide six years of Trump tax returns with essentially the same argument that they put forth in seeking full access to the results of the 22-month-long Russia investigation by Robert S. Mueller III: It’s not the administration’s call.
Trump’s taxes have long been a matter of particular sensitivity due to the size and complexity of the president’s business empire and potential conflicts of interest on the part of Trump and his family — as well as what Democrats say is a lack of transparency over whether American foreign policy has ever been shaped by the president’s own bottom line.
Mulvaney’s vehement rejection of the request for Trump’s 2013-2018 taxes — made by Rep. Richard Neal, the Massachusetts Democrat who heads the House Ways and Means Committee — marked a sharp escalation of the administration’s longtime rhetoric on releasing the president’s tax documents.
Trump has long cited audits as the reason he has broken with decades of tradition and refused to make his returns public, either as a major-party candidate or as president. He routinely implies that his hands are tied by the audits — a claim robustly disputed by critics — rather than overtly saying he’s not willing to recognize congressional authority or abide by ethical norms.
Mulvaney took a far more aggressive stance, accusing the Democrats of taking part in a “political hit job” with no legal or legislative basis. Speaking on “Fox News Sunday,” the chief of staff said of a handover of the returns: “That is not going to happen, and they know it.”
Trump’s personal lawyer Jay Sekulow, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” took a similar tack, saying the request that the IRS hand over the president’s returns by Wednesday was entirely politically motivated.
Echoing the president’s inclination to try to turn the tables on perceived foes, Sekulow suggested that Trump could have acted in kind if he so chose, and pointedly mentioned the House speaker, a favorite presidential foil.
“The president has not asked for Nancy Pelosi’s tax returns,” Sekulow said.
In fact, federal law makes tax returns private and generally does not allow the president to see them. The law has a few specific exceptions to the secrecy rules. One exception, put into law in 1924, provides that three House and Senate committees that deal with taxes, including House Ways and Means, have the right to see individual returns and that the Treasury secretary “shall furnish” them when the committees make a request.
Congress passed that law as it was investigating a major scandal of that era and amid allegations of conflicts of interest involving some senior officials of the Coolidge administration.
Trump has hired a team of lawyers to fight the request, vowing to battle the disclosure in court. In a letter Friday, the lawyers argued that there was no “legitimate committee purpose” for the disclosure demand and that Neal and his colleagues were engaged in a “transparent effort by one political party to harass an official from the other party because they dislike his politics and speech.”
Democrats dismissed the notion that the tax-return request was made out of partisan vindictiveness.
“This is not political, as our Republican colleagues are making it out to be,” said Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, the No 4 Democrat in the House. Appearing on Fox, he said the request was “ironclad … and is going forward.”
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), interviewed on ABC, said there were clearly valid grounds for seeking the tax documents.
“We are looking very carefully right now as to whether or not the IRS is properly auditing and enforcing tax law on the president of the United States, and we’re considering legislative changes to that end,” he said.
It is “not up to President Trump to determine whether or not this coequal branch of government has the tools available to it to make the deliberations necessary in order to make policy,” Kildee said.
Congressional Republicans — even occasional critics of the president — have given no sign they would push back against the White House’s refusal to disclose Trump’s taxes.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said he would “like the president to follow through and show his tax returns” but predicted that Trump was “going to win this victory.”
The tax contretemps coincides with a sharpening confrontation over the administration’s characterizations of the Mueller report, which was delivered to Atty. Gen. William Barr just over two weeks ago.
Based on Barr’s summation of the report’s main points, Trump proclaimed complete exoneration, not only on suspicions his campaign colluded with Russia during the 2016 campaign, but also on the question of whether he obstructed justice when investigators began scrutinizing his actions.
Mueller expressly said he did not exonerate the president on obstruction, but Barr, a Trump appointee who takes an expansive view of presidential powers, declared Trump in the clear on that.
Over the last week, news reports cited unidentified members of Mueller’s team as saying Barr’s summary did not reflect the gravity of overall concerns raised about the president’s conduct. On Sunday, the powerful Democrat who heads the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, insisted anew that the full report and underlying evidence be handed over to lawmakers.
A redacted version is expected to be handed over to Congress by Barr within the next 10 days, but Nadler, interviewed on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” said the attorney general could not be trusted to decide which parts to withhold because he was acting as “an agent of the administration.”
“He is a biased person,” Nadler said.
As doubts mounted about whether Barr had fairly depicted the report’s contents, the Trump team renewed expressions of elaborate unconcern about Mueller’s findings in the nearly 400-page report.
“Except for little quibbles, I’m not worried about the report at all,” Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani said on CBS.
Trump himself took repeated aim over the weekend at the Mueller probe’s legitimacy. On Sunday morning, he tweeted a fresh denunciation of Mueller’s team — “13 Trump Haters & Angry Democrats.”
Barr is appearing on Capitol Hill this week for what’s meant to be testimony about the Justice Department’s budget appropriation, but Democrats are likely to seize the moment to press him about his decision-making on redactions to the report.
Rep. Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said even if Mueller made a narrow finding that actions of Trump and his top associates did not rise to the level of a provable criminal conspiracy, many questions remained.
The Burbank Democrat was attacked by Trump in highly personal terms — on Twitter, of course — for challenging the president’s assertion that he was fully exonerated.
“I don’t regret calling out this president for what I consider deeply unethical and improper conduct — not a bit,” Schiff said on CNN’s “State of the Union. “What we’re talking about here is the difference between conduct that rises to the level of criminality, and conduct that is deeply unethical, unpatriotic and corrupt, that may not be criminal.”