It was a long time coming, or at least it seemed that way, but Democrats have finally sued Steve Mnuchin’s Treasury Department and the IRS in an effort to secure Donald Trump’s tax returns.
“Defendants have mounted an extraordinary attack on the authority of Congress to obtain information needed to conduct oversight of Treasury, the IRS, and the tax laws on behalf of the American people who participate in the Nation’s voluntary tax system”, the 49-page lawsuit reads.
So far, Mnuchin has failed to comply with written requests and a subpoena, at times relying on the advice of William Barr’s Justice Department and always parroting some version of a narrative that paints the original request (made in April by House Ways and Means chair Richard Neal) as an attack on privacy that would set a purportedly dangerous precedent.
“[Your request] presents serious constitutional questions, the resolution of which may have lasting consequences for all taxpayers”, Mnuchin wrote to Neal in May, adding that after consulting with the Justice department, he “determined that the Committee’s request lacks a legitimate legislative purpose”.
Trump has also leaned on the “lacks a legitimate legislative purpose” excuse in attempting to block Congress from obtaining records from Mazars and Deutsche Bank, so far to no avail. Trump is appealing those cases.
The tax fight (which will probably last past the 2020 election) hinges in part on a somewhat esoteric section of the tax code which some attorneys suggest gives Neal the upper hand. Here’s an excerpt from the complaint (it’s embedded in full below) which, hilariously, cites Trump’s own criticism of the process in arguing for the release of his returns:
Nothing in Section 6103(f) requires the Committee to explain to Treasury its reasons for seeking tax return information. But the Committee’s need for the materials requested here is evident. The Committee is investigating the IRS’s administration of various tax laws and policies relating to Presidential tax returns and tax law compliance by President Trump, including whether the IRS’s self-imposed policy of annually auditing the returns of sitting Presidents is working properly, even though it has not been updated in decades. Indeed, President Trump himself has repeatedly questioned the integrity of the process by which the IRS audits his tax returns, complaining that his returns are under “continuous audit” and that the IRS’s policy of annually auditing Presidential returns is “extremely unfair.” The President has also publicly theorized that the IRS audits him because of his assertedly strong Christian faith. 5. These complaints by President Trump underscore the appropriateness of the Committee’s review of IRS audits of Presidential returns, including those of President Trump. 6. Thus far, however, the Committee has been unable to evaluate President Trump’s claims about the audit program or investigate its other concerns because the President has declined to follow the practice of every elected President since Richard Nixon of voluntarily disclosing their tax returns. Without reviewing the requested return materials, the Committee cannot ensure that the IRS’s audit process is functioning fairly and effectively, understand how provisions of the tax code are implicated by President Trump’s returns, or exercise its legislative judgment to determine whether changes to the code may be warranted.
Trump, of course, also argues that because he’s under audit, he cannot release his returns. There is no legal basis for that argument.
As Politico writes, “the administration may contend that there isn’t a way to enforce the 1924 law since, even though it says the Treasury secretary ‘shall’ turn over returns upon request, it doesn’t say what happens if someone defies the law”.
That may well be a problem Congress (and, perhaps, the judiciary) finds itself running into more and more often going forward.
Trump has discovered that, when challenged, America’s checks and balances are paper tigers. You can be absolutely sure that he has asked aides and advisors, probably numerous times, “What happens if I, as president, just say no?”
If we’re all being honest with ourselves, nobody knows the answer to that.