Incoming Democratic tax chairman won't make quick grab for Trump's returns
House Democrats’ point man on taxes is advocating a go-slow approach to the battle with President Donald Trump over his tax returns, despite pressure from the left to move quickly.
Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), who will be the new Ways and Means Committee chairman, wants to take some time to try to build a case with the public about why Trump ought to voluntarily release his tax filings, before tapping an obscure law that allows the heads of Congress’ tax committees to examine anyone’s returns.
“He wants to lay out a case about why presidents should be disclosing their tax returns before he formally forces him to do it,” said Dan Rubin, a Neal spokesperson. Pulling the legal trigger may not come until February at the earliest.
The Massachusetts Democrat hopes to focus public attention on the issue with the first bill House Democrats plan to take up. It includes provisions that would require Trump and future presidential and vice presidential contenders to release their returns. Trump is the first president in more than 40 years to refuse to release details of his tax filings.
Neal's approach may disappoint some liberals who’ve been salivating at the chance to finally resolve the question of what’s in Trump’s returns, and who’ve been looking to House Democrats for quick action on the issue.
The timing is tricky for Neal, though, because going to war with the administration over the issue threatens their chances of working together on other, substantial tax issues.
“He is a very policy-driven person, and I think he sees that if we break the glass and pull that alarm, you won’t get anything done after that,” said Rubin.
The administration is unlikely to hand over the returns without a legal battle. Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani told CNN last month that the president would fight any request in court, while Newt Gingrich has predicted the issue will end up at the Supreme Court.
A spokesperson for the Treasury Department, which would handle any request for Trump's returns, said Wednesday that “Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin will review any request with the Treasury general counsel for legality.”
Trump has an incentive to delay, in hopes perhaps that Republicans retake the House in 2020.
Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told the San Francisco Chronicle in October that demanding Trump’s returns would be “one of the first things we’d do” if Democrats won control of the House, adding, “that’s the easiest thing in the world.”
Last month, though, Pelosi sounded a more cautious note, saying, “it’s a little more challenging than you might think.”
“I’m sure the White House would resist and so the question is, how do we go — where do we go from there?” she said.
In the meantime, there are a number of other more immediate issues facing Neal.
His committee’s membership is in flux, with Democrats expected to add almost a dozen new members who will likely want a chance to weigh in on how to proceed with Trump’s returns.
There is also the partial government shutdown, which, among other agencies, is affecting the Treasury Department. Another question is what exactly Democrats will request. Trump’s personal returns? His business returns? For how many years?
And finally there is the issue of what Democrats will do with the documents if they receive them. Lawmakers will need a plan because improperly disclosing tax information is a felony. Experts say there are procedures Democrats could use to make Trump’s returns public. If they don’t follow them though, lawmakers could find themselves in legal jeopardy if they discuss publicly what they see in Trump’s returns.