President Trump, through personal attorneys, pushed back Friday on congressional Democrats' demand to review Trump's tax returns and those of his businesses, setting the stage for a major court fight.
In a letter sent to the IRS, Will Consovoy, a personal attorney Trump retained, argued the agency should reject the request made by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., under an obscure part of the tax code to review Trump’s tax information.
“His request is a transparent effort by one political party to harass an official from the other party because they dislike his politics and speech,” Consovoy wrote in the letter.
“Chairman Neal wants the President’s tax returns and return information because his party recently gained control of the House, the President is their political opponent, and they want to use the information to damage him politically,” Consovoy argued.
“If the IRS acquiesces to Chairman Neal’s request, it would set a dangerous precedent,” he wrote.
Consovoy concluded by telling the IRS to consult with the Department of Justice in its evaluation of Neal’s request, though the law Neal cites in his request mandates the treasury secretary handles any congressional request.
Experts with experience in congressional tax investigations didn't think Trump's argument held much water.
“I think it’s perfectly reasonable for Democrats to say 'trust but verify,'” said Dean Zerbe, a former Republican staffer for the Senate Finance Committee, echoing an old Ronald Reagan saying. “At the core of it there’s a legitimate oversight question. Under the statute, the IRS has an obligation to audit the president’s tax returns.”
One of the motivations Neal and his committee gave for the inquiry is to determine whether the president's businesses, which are closely held, fall under an IRS mandate to automatically audit the sitting president and vice-president.
Another former congressional aide, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the topic, agreed with Zerbe.
“Nobody can object to that because Congress has every right to make sure that the laws are being enforced and properly adhered to,” the former aide said. He added: “The committee has looked at [other tax law enforcement] issues in the past. It is entirely within their purview to conduct legitimate oversight as the one body in government that can do this.”
The law that the Ways and Means Committee cites in its request is a part of the tax code put in place following a government corruption scandal in the 1920s, the Teapot Dome Scandal, a bribery scandal that involved members of the Harding administration. The law has been amended over the years, including after the Nixon administration.
The law reads, "Upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives ... the [Treasury] Secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request."
The information in the return, however, must be kept confidential and reviewed in a closed executive session. That could present a hurdle if Democrats want to publicize any details of Trump's tax returns, as some progressive supporters want them to do, but Neal has defended his request as necessary oversight — and has said he would not release any information without a committee vote and reason to do so.
“The idea they would be turned over and arbitrarily released without review and consideration wouldn’t happen,” Neal told The Republican/MassLive.com in an interview earlier this week.
The same law that grants Neal the power to request that information also carries strict penalties for unauthorized disclosure of tax information. A leaker can face up to five years in prison, although Trump can waive his right to confidentiality and release his returns. Consovoy's letter suggests that will be unlikely.