Wednesday deadline for Trump to release tax returns isn't met, court filing increasingly likely
Democrats vow to pursue request for 6 years of information
The likelihood of a court fight over President Donald Trump's tax returns grew Wednesday when the U.S. Treasury Department said it would not meet a deadline set by Democratic legislators to provide them, and Trump himself stuck to his refusal to publicly release the documents.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the department hasn't decided whether to comply with a demand by a key House Democrat to deliver Trump's tax returns and would not meet a Wednesday deadline to provide them.
In a letter to House ways and means committee chairman Richard Neal, who asked for Trump's returns a week ago, Mnuchin said Treasury will consult with the Justice Department and "carefully" review the request further.
"The legal implications of this request could affect protections for all Americans against politically motivated disclosures of personal tax information, regardless of which party is in power," Mnuchin wrote.
He said Treasury respects lawmakers' oversight duties and would make sure taxpayer protections would be "scrupulously observed, consistent with my statutory responsibilities" as the department reviews the request.
Earlier Wednesday, Trump weighed in, telling reporters that he won't agree to release his returns while he is under audit.
Trump said, "I would love to give them, but I'm not going to do it while I'm under audit."
Internal Revenue Service commissioner Charles Rettig said in congressional testimony this week that there's no rule prohibiting taxpayers under audit from releasing their returns.
Neal asked the IRS last Wednesday to turn over six years of the president's tax returns within a week. Trump has broken with decades of presidential precedent by not voluntarily releasing his returns.
Trump's position has long been that he is under audit and therefore could not release his returns. But in recent weeks, he has added to the argument, saying publicly and privately that the American people elected him without seeing his taxes and would do so again.
"Remember, I got elected last time — the same exact issue," Trump said. "Frankly, the people don't care."
The president has told those close to him that the attempt to get his returns were an invasion of his privacy and a further example of the Democratic-led "witch hunt" — which he has called special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation — meant to damage him.
Trump has repeatedly asked aides about the status of the House request and has inquired about the "loyalty" of the top officials at the IRS, according to one outside adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Democrats want to review Trump's returns chiefly as part of their investigations into possible conflicts of interest posed by his continued ownership of extensive business interests even as he serves as president.
Democrats didn't expect the department to comply, but they haven't sketched out their next steps. Rep. Dan Kildee, speaking before Mnuchin's response was delivered, said it may take Neal a couple of days to issue his own response. House Democrats are at a party retreat in the Virginia suburbs of Washington.
'We intend to follow through'
Neal has adopted a methodical approach to seeking Trump's returns. He has the option of eventually seeking to subpoena the records or to go to court if Treasury does not comply, but it's not clear he'll adopt a more confrontational approach just yet.
Neal's initial letter, sent a week ago, didn't lay out any consequences for the IRS if it didn't comply, and a spokesperson said a likely course would be a second, more insistent letter.
"We intend to follow through with this," Neal said Wednesday. "I'll let you know fast."
The request for Trump's tax filings is but one of many oversight efforts launched by Democrats after taking back the House in last fall's midterm elections. Neal is relying on a 1920s-era law that says the IRS "shall furnish" any tax return requested by the chairmen of key House and Senate committees.
Republicans oppose release of the returns, arguing that it would politicize tax data. The returns of U.S. taxpayers are generally held as confidential by the IRS, which is part of the Treasury Department.
"There is a high likelihood this ends up in the courts, which is, in a way, unusual because typically when there's a request like this by Congress, the matter is settled more politically with a compromise," said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in political process law. "But in this case, both sides have really dug in."
Legal experts have said that little case law would be available to guide judges if Congress were to take the administration to court over the issue.
Mnuchin told lawmakers that his department will "follow the law," but he hasn't shared the department's interpretation of the statute.
The White House did not respond to questions as to whether the president asked Mnuchin or the IRS head to intervene. The president's outside attorney also did not respond to a request for comment.
With files from CBC News