Trump's Treasury Secretary Mnuchin brazenly denies Congress's legally mandated request for the president's taxes

News & Politics

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Monday officially denied Congress' request for six years of President Donald Trump's tax returns, in brazen defiance of the unequivocal law saying the department must comply with such overtures.

As former federal prosecutor Harry Litman has argued, this no ambiguity about the law requiring the provision of any person's tax returns on a request from the chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, who is currently Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA):

The law that permits Neal, as head of Ways and Means, to receive Trump’s returns is simple and clear: 26 U.S.C. §6103(f) specifies that “upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives … the Secretary [of the Treasury] shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request.” The return is furnished in closed executive session.

“Shall” means, well, shall. The language is the well-established norm, across a range of legal settings, used to denote an absence of discretion on an official’s part. It leaves no room for quibbles by the secretary.

But Mnuchin argued in his letter that, in consultation with the Justice Department, he has concluded that "the Committee's request lacks a legitimate legislative purpose" and that he is "therefore not authorized to disclose the requested returns and return information."

He said that the Justice Department is working on crafting a legal opinion that justifies this action, and adds that "the [Treasury] Department may not lawfully fulfill the Committee’s request."

This is entirely backward. In fact, the law is clear that the department has no option but to fulfill the request. Neither Mnuchin nor anyone else gets to decide whether Congress has a "legitimate legislative purpose" in asking for the returns. The law doesn't even say that Congress needs a legitimate legislative purpose. All it says is that the committee can ask, and the department shall comply. For Mnuchin, Trump, or the Justice Department to think they can decide which of Congress's lawfully conducted acts is "legitimate" is a gross violation of the separation of powers.

Mnuchin claimed that the committee's request "presents serious constitutional questions," but it does not. For the purposes of paying taxes, the president is just like any other citizen, and the Congress has as much right to examine his filings as anyone else's. It's Mnuchin's unprincipled violation of the law and noncompliance with Congress that raises serious constitutional challenges.

"Today, Secretary Mnuchin notified me that the IRS will not provide the documents I requested under Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code," said Chairman Neal in response to the letter. "I will consult with counsel and determine the appropriate response."

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