Administration rejects subpoena for Trump's tax returns, upping stakes in battle with Democrats

 politico.com  05/17/2019 20:08:00 
Donald Trump

The Trump administration on Friday rejected House Democrats subpoena for the presidents tax returns, pushing the two sides closer to a major court fight.

In a letter to House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who issued the subpoena last week, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin reiterated what he told Neal in earlier letters: The administration does not believe Democrats have a legitimate legislative reason for seeking the tax filings.

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For the same reasons, we are unable to provide the requested information in response to the committees subpoena, he said.

The decision was no surprise, with Mnuchin indicating earlier this week that he expected the dispute to be settled by the courts. Also, the administration is defying subpoenas from Democrats on several other fronts.

The announcement shifts the focus back to the House, where Democrats intend to try to enforce their subpoena.

They have not said exactly how they intend to do that  that will be up to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). She could have the entire chamber vote to authorize the House general counsel, Douglas Letter, to file suit against the administration. Another potential, and likely faster, option would be to have a group of House leaders known as the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group vote to authorize the suit, though there are questions about whether that is allowable under the chambers rules.

Either way, a Democratic aide said, it will likely be weeks before a suit is filed in court.

"Given the Treasury Secretarys failure to comply today, I am consulting with counsel on how best to enforce the subpoenas moving forward," Neal said in a statement Friday, noting that a subpoena was also issued to IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig.

"Issuance of these subpoenas should not have been necessary," he said. "The law provides clear statutory authority for the Chair of the Ways and Means Committee to request and receive access to tax returns and return information."

Neal has been demanding six years worth of Trumps personal tax records, along with those of several of his businesses, since early April.

Democrats, complaining Trump has thumbed his nose at a decades-old tradition of presidents voluntarily releasing their tax filings, are trying to seize his records by relying on a 1924 law allowing the heads of Congresss tax committees to examine anyones confidential tax information.

Republicans say Democrats just want to search Trumps taxes for things they can use to embarrass him politically. They are pointing to court decisions in which judges have said lawmakers investigations must have some purpose related to their official duties as policymakers.

The administration is likely to try to drag out any court fight in hopes of pushing the issue beyond the 2020 elections. By then, Republicans may retake the House, allowing them to quash the suit. Trump could be in his second term by then, when the issue will be less important, or he could be voted out of office next year.

A case would likely begin in federal court in Washington, D.C. If the administration loses there, it could appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court and, from there, to the Supreme Court.

Although a legal fight is likely to be lengthy, its conceivable that delaying could prove a bad strategy for the administration if it is forced to turn over the documents just ahead of next years elections.

It also would not be unusual if a judge were reluctant to decide such a politically charged case, and instead pushed the two sides to compromise.

The House has only sued the executive branch a handful of times in its history.

In the last 20 years, there have been maybe five suits, and, prior to that time, there had been none, said Michael Stern, a former senior counsel in the Houses Office of General Counsel.

It is obviously something that is happening much more frequently now, but it is still, historically, extremely rare, he said.

Democrats have other options when it comes to trying to enforce their subpoena, though they are generally considered less appealing.

They could vote to hold Mnuchin in criminal contempt, though that would ultimately be referred to the Justice Department, which is unlikely to prosecute him.

There is an "inherent contempt option where lawmakers could have the Houses Sergeant at Arms arrest Mnuchin, though that is improbable, not least because he has Secret Service protection.

They could try to attach riders to the annual budget bill funding Treasury that dock Mnuchins salary, though theyd need Republicans to agree to go along with that. Democrats could also impeach Mnuchin and Rettig.

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