White House Lawyers Discussed Trump Tax Returns With Treasury Department | Prairie Public Broadcasting

White House Lawyers Discussed Trump Tax Returns With Treasury Department

Apr 9, 2019
Originally published on April 10, 2019 7:02 am

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET

White House lawyers communicated with the Treasury Department about how to handle House Democrats' request for 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.

: 4/08/19

In a previous version of this story, the initial reference to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig incorrectly gave his last name as Retting.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If things go the way the Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee wants, he will get President Trump's tax returns for the past six years, and he will get them by tomorrow. That is the deadline Congressman Richard Neal set in a letter to the IRS. Both Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig were testifying today on Capitol Hill, and the returns became topic A, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Mnuchin and Rettig went up to Capitol Hill to testify about next year's budgets for Treasury and the IRS. The questions started immediately. Democrat Mike Quigley, chair of an Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Treasury, asked Mnuchin who was making the decision about complying with Congressman Neal's letter. Mnuchin said Treasury lawyers were working on it and other lawyers, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVEN MNUCHIN: Our legal department has had conversations prior to receiving the letter with the White House general counsel.

OVERBY: This is an issue because the law that Neal is using was crafted to keep the request between Congress and the IRS. Mnuchin said he was out of the loop.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MNUCHIN: I want to be very clear and not be misleading. I acknowledge that there were conversations. I am not briefed on the full extent of those conversations.

OVERBY: Almost all of the presidents in the past 50 years have made their tax returns public, voluntarily. Trump has not, and questions about his tax returns have piled up since he took office. Quigley went to the history books.

MIKE QUIGLEY: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Nelson Rockefeller all had congressional hearings relating to their tax returns.

OVERBY: That was this morning. In the afternoon, Mnuchin told the House Financial Services committee his lawyers hadn't asked the White House for any permission.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MNUCHIN: We consulted, which I believe was appropriate of our legal department.

CAROLYN MALONEY: Well, I think the fact that there was any communication with the White House about this is deeply troubling and certainly violates the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law.

OVERBY: That was New York Democrat Carolyn Maloney, who said more digging was needed. Mnuchin had this exchange with Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MNUCHIN: I'm not afraid of being fired at all.

MAXINE WATERS: Very good.

MNUCHIN: Having said that...

WATERS: Yes.

MNUCHIN: ...Again, I want to be clear. I've said we will follow the law, and we are...

WATERS: OK, and you are clear. And I'm very pleased you're not afraid of being fired.

OVERBY: Meanwhile, the Appropriations subcommittee that had questioned Mnuchin was moving on to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig. When Trump's tax returns came up, he tightened visibly and turned away several questions as inappropriate. Georgia Congressman Tom Graves, the ranking Republican on the panel, decried the Democrats' approach.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM GRAVES: It just seems like we have a chairman and, potentially, a party that is attempting to weaponize the IRS for political gain.

OVERBY: But the history of this law is also relevant. Congress passed it in 1924 to get at the Teapot Dome bribery scandal and conflict of interest problems in the Harding administration. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.