Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has told the House Ways and Means Committee that he had decided not to provide the committee with President Donald Trump's tax returns. That is not his decision to make, however, and it cannot stand.
Mnuchin claims to be relying on a yet-to-be-written legal opinion from the Justice Department, but there is no plausible legal rationale that would justify a government official in Mnuchin's position defying a clear federal law. Faced with the secretary's contemptuous violation of the law, Congress must use every means at its disposal to ensure that it can perform its constitutional oversight duty.
The law in this case is unambiguous. It clearly states that the Secretary of Treasury "shall furnish . . . any return or return information" requested in writing by the House Ways and Means Committee. Instead of complying with this requirement, the secretary asserted that he was not fulfilling the request on the grounds that he had determined that the "request lacks a legitimate legislative purpose." This is not a determination the secretary is empowered to make, and it is also not correct.
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In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Congress has many legitimate and important reasons to request the president's returns. Just a few months ago, the House passed landmark ethics and accountability legislation that specifically contemplated the mandatory release of the president's tax returns. I testified in support of that legislation at a hearing of the same committee that Mr. Mnuchin is now flouting. As I mentioned at the time, the returns are crucial for evaluating potential conflicts of interest.
Trump and his family are a special case
This need is particularly acute in the case of a president who has decided, unlike every president before him, to retain a large network of privately-held business interests that expose him to corruption risks all over the world. The public record alone discloses more than 1,400 points of contact during Trump's first two years in office involving the government, those trying to influence it, and the Trump Organization.
Particularly troubling facts specific to Trump provide additional compelling justifications for congressional oversight. News reporting suggests that the Trump family, including the president, engaged in an elaborate, decades-long scheme to minimize tax liability. Trump's sister, a former federal judge, retired from the bench just 10 days after a judicial panel began an inquiry into her role in the scheme; her retirement ended that inquiry. In addition, as we recently discovered, the current head of the IRS has earned as much as $1 million in income from a rental property he owns - at a Trump-branded development. Only willful blindness would allow Congress to simply assume all is well.
Not all of the concerns are specific to Trump. Congress might consider whether the IRS, headed by a presidential appointee, is sufficiently independent to fairly review the president's taxes. Indeed, the IRS itself applies special procedures to the audit of a president's taxes, acknowledging the inherent risk of political interference or bias.
Legally indefensible obstinacy from Mnuchin
And if common sense doesn't tell you an IRS audit of a president's tax returns requires careful supervision, history should. In the case of President Richard Nixon, Congress undertook its own review and found just what it feared: the IRS had failed to identify thousands of dollars of taxes that Nixon owed, instead publicly praising him for the accuracy of his return. House Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal cited this concern about the IRS's ability to conduct appropriate oversight in requesting the returns. This rationale is historically and logically well-supported.
Secretary Mnuchin and the Justice Department will apparently make a more detailed argument to justify their failure to follow the law that clearly gives Congress the right to review individuals' tax returns. But whatever they argue, this much is certain: This gambit is nothing more than an attempt to run out the clock on this Congress.
It comes as this administration is refusing across the board to provide testimony and documents in response to legitimate congressional requests, including ongoing investigations into abuses in granting top secret security clearances and the president's lawsuit to prevent Deutsche Bank from providing critical financial information to Congress. Mnuchin's legally indefensible obstinacy is just the latest example of this administration's total obstruction of Congress's necessary role as a check and balance in our constitutional system.
Noah Bookbinder is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. Follow him on Twitter: @NoahBookbinder
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mnuchin defies the law by withholding Trump tax returns. Congress can't let this stand.