Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday denied a request from House Democrats access to six years of President Donald Trump's tax returns, failing for the third time to meet a congressional deadline to produce the documents.
The move escalated the fight between the executive and legislative branches of government over the returns, setting the stage for what is likely to be a lengthy legal battle.
"I am informing you now that the Department may not lawfully fulfill the Committee's request," Mnuchin said in a one-page letter to House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., written in consultation with lawyers from the Department of Justice.
Mnuchin said the committee's requests for the president's tax returns "lacks a legitimate legislative purpose." Democrats, meanwhile, have argued the power for lawmakers to seek the returns is written explicitly in a 1924 law.
But Mnuchin, Trump's former campaign finance chairman, has fought to protect the president's financial information from public disclosure, arguing the request to turn over his returns would create a dangerous precedent. He said Monday that the Justice Department would publish its legal opinion on the issue "as soon as practicable."
Neal, in a statement following Mnuchin's letter, said he would "consult with counsel and determine the appropriate response."
The chairman is expected to issue a subpoena for the documents, and if necessary, sue in federal court to enforce the subpoena. It would be one of several subpoenas from congressional Democrats conducting oversight of the Trump administration. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., subpoenaed the Justice Department for the unredacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the president's alleged efforts to obstruct the probe.
Democrats could also move to hold Mnuchin or IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, to whom the original request for Trump's returns was addressed, in contempt of Congress.
"We need immediate legal action," Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, a member of the Ways and Means panel, said in a statement in the wake of Mnuchin's letter. "We cannot allow this bad president to set bad precedent. If Trump once again faces only Republican silence and Democratic timidity, he will continue to erode our democracy by assuming more and more power."
Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, accused Democrats of seeking to use the IRS as a weapon. He wrote in a tweet that there was a "big difference" between "legitimate" congressional oversight and the Democrats' conduct.
Neal first made the request for six years of Trump's personal and business tax returns on April 3. He originally demanded the returns under a portion of the federal tax code that says the IRS "shall furnish" the returns of any taxpayer to the chairman of the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.
Mnuchin refused to provide the documents by the chairman's original April 10 deadline, saying the Treasury needed more time to complete the request and consult with the Justice Department. Neal then set a second deadline of April 23, which Mnuchin also missed, saying he expected Treasury to make a final decision by May 6.
Democrats have been on a hunt to obtain Trump's tax returns since he bucked decades of tradition when he refused to release them during the 2016 election cycle.
Although not required by law, every major party presidential nominee since the 1970s has chosen to publicly release his or her tax returns except for Gerald Ford, who only released a summary. Financial disclosures can help paint a fuller picture of a candidate's business positions and interests by providing information about financial dealings, such as investments, donations, business relationships, assets and possible conflicts of interests.
Trump has made clear he does not want to turn over his tax returns, declaring he cannot disclose them because he is being audited by the IRS — even though an audit does not prevent a taxpayer from releasing his or her own tax documents. The administration has indicated it plans to fight congressional requests for information about the president's finances.
Democrats requested Trump's returns as part of their wide-ranging investigations into potential conflicts of interests posed by his business dealings. Republicans, meanwhile, have criticized the request as merely a pretext for a political attack.
Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the top Republican on the Ways and Means panel, previously urged Mnuchin to reject Neal's request, calling it an "abuse" of authority from Democrats on the committee.
"Weaponizing our nation's tax code by targeting political foes sets a dangerous precedent and weakens Americans privacy right," the Texas Republican wrote in an April 3 letter to Mnuchin. "All Americans have a fundamental right to the privacy of the personal information found in their tax returns."