The Trump administration is continuing their unprecedented campaign of stonewalling against Congressional attempts at oversight. This Monday, Trump campaign finance chairman turned Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin formally notified the House Ways and Means Committee that they did not intend to hand over any of the president’s tax returns. Democrats will likely soon be launching a lawsuit to make their case.
Under a clearly delineated provision in the tax code stretching back almost 100 years, the House Ways and Means Committee’s chairman — who at present is Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) — has the power to request any taxpayer’s history from the Treasury Department. Neal sought the last half dozen years of Donald Trump’s personal and business tax returns, but on claimed advice from the Justice Department, Mnuchin said that he wouldn’t be complying because the request lacked a “legitimate legislative purpose.”
As he put it:
‘In reliance on the advice of the Department of Justice, I have determined that the Committee’s request lacks a legitimate legislative purpose, and…the Department is therefore not authorized to disclose the requested returns and return information.’
There are two problems with that assertion. On the one hand, there’s no clear evidence for Mnuchin’s claim of the necessity of a “legitimate legislative purpose” underlying requests for documents from outside Congress. Neal himself has outlined a number of court rulings depicting Congressional motivations as not to be questioned as a rule — in other words, the legislative branch fulfilling its clearly laid out responsibilities is not to be politicized. However, that’s exactly what Mnuchin has done with his Monday letter.
There’s another issue, making the blatant politicization even more clear. In short — there is an apparent “legitimate legislative purpose” underlying Neal’s original request. Trump stands credibly accused of tax, bank, and insurance fraud, and there are multiple investigations currently underway into the issue, including outside of Congress. Neal has specified that he seeks to examine the execution of tax law in relation to a sitting president, requesting not just Trump’s tax returns but information about any government audits that have proceeded or are currently underway into the president’s finances. Trump has claimed these supposed audits as reason for him being unable to release his tax returns in accordance with decades of precedent, although there’s no apparent reason for that.
Mnuchin says that the Justice Department will be making its reasoning for their guidance public — but in the meantime, as financial reporter Damian Paletta put it:
‘Mnuchin says he won’t turn over Trump’s tax returns to Congress, citing legal advice from the Justice Department. But neither Treasury nor the Justice Department would furnish the legal opinion, and it appears at this time a formal opinion doesn’t exist.’
In other words, the Trump team is seeking to make up legal precedent as they go along in defense of their dear leader.
Mnuchin says he won’t turn over Trump’s tax returns to Congress, citing legal advice from the Justice Department. But neither Treasury nor the Justice Department would furnish the legal opinion, and it appears at this time a formal opinion doesn’t exist. https://t.co/8lpxPGkKVD
— Damian Paletta (@damianpaletta) May 6, 2019
There’s a clear parallel for this behavior in the Trump team’s response to the Russia scandal. They have gone to backbending lengths to break with actual legal protocol in an attempt to declare Trump innocent of obstruction of justice, wrongly claiming, for instance, that there can only be prosecutable obstruction if there’s criminally prosecutable underlying behavior. That’s false, however, and flies in the face of the very foundation of the concept — as others have pointed out, it would mean that “successful” obstructers should be rewarded and let off the hook.
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