WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House said Thursday that Democratic efforts to obtain President Donald Trump’s tax records are “political games.” A House committee chairman formally asked the IRS Wednesday to provide six years of Trump’s personal tax returns and the returns for some of his businesses as Democrats try to shed light on his complex financial dealings and potential conflicts of interest.
The request by Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, who heads the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, is the first such demand for a sitting president’s tax information in 45 years. The unprecedented move is likely to set off a huge legal battle between Democrats controlling the House and the Trump administration.
Neal made the request Wednesday in a letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, asking for Trump’s personal and business returns for 2013 through 2018. He asked for the documents in seven days, setting an April 10 deadline.
Trump told reporters Wednesday he “would not be inclined” to provide his tax returns to the committee. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Thursday morning that the White House “is not interested in playing a bunch of political games like the Democrats in Congress clearly want to spend their time doing.”
Asked again later Thursday for his response to Neal’s demand, Trump didn’t provide a direct answer. “They’ll speak to my lawyers; they’ll speak to the attorney general,” Trump said at the White House, referring to Attorney General William Barr, whom he appointed.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec declined to comment. An IRS spokesman said the agency had no comment on Neal’s request. Democrats insist that obtaining Trump’s tax filings falls within their mandate of congressional oversight. Republicans have denounced it as a political witch hunt and invoked privacy concerns. “We have completed the necessary groundwork for a request of this magnitude, and I am certain we are within our legitimate legislative, legal and oversight rights,” Neal said in a statement Wednesday evening.
Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the senior Republican on the Ways and Means panel, denounced the move as “an abuse of the tax-writing committees’ statutory authority.”
“Weaponizing our nation’s tax code by targeting political foes sets a dangerous precedent and weakens Americans’ privacy rights,” Brady wrote in a letter Wednesday to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who oversees the IRS. “As you know, by law all Americans have a fundamental right to the privacy of the personal information found in their tax returns.”
Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, the No. 2 House GOP leader, said “a lot of Americans are shocked” that Congress can review tax returns, “whether it’s a blue collar worker or president of the United States.”
The legal battle set to ensue could take years to resolve, possibly stretching beyond the 2020 presidential election. Trump broke with decades of tradition for presidential candidates by refusing to release his income tax filings during his 2016 campaign. He has said he won’t release them because he is being audited, even though IRS officials have said taxpayers under audit are free to release their returns. Trump claimed at a news conference following the November election that the filings are too complex for people to understand.
The IRS has a policy of auditing the tax returns of all sitting presidents and vice presidents, “yet little is known about the effectiveness of this program,” Neal said in the statement. “On behalf of the American people, the Ways and Means Committee must determine if that policy is being followed, and if so, whether these audits are conducted fully and appropriately.”
Neal continued, “In order to fairly make that determination, we must obtain President Trump’s tax returns and review whether the IRS is carrying out its responsibilities.”
Neal is one of only three congressional officials authorized to make a written request to the Treasury secretary for anyone’s tax returns. The Internal Revenue Service is part of the Treasury Department. A rarely used 1924 law says the Treasury chief “shall furnish” the requested material to members of the Ways and Means Committee for them to examine behind closed doors.