Trump lawyer criticizes House Democrat's tax return demands

(Recasts with Trump lawyer letter; adds quotes, report on accounting firm)

By David Morgan and Karen Freifeld

WASHINGTON, April 15 (Reuters) - A lawyer for President Donald Trump warned the U.S. Treasury on Monday that Democratic lawmakers are pursuing "unchecked congressional power" by requesting Trump's tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service.

In a letter to Treasury General Counsel Brent McIntosh, Trump lawyer William Consovoy accused the chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, Richard Neal, of inventing a legislative justification for the request while pursuing political aims. Treasury officials had no immediate comment.

Consovoy's letter, which appeared to increase the odds of a lengthy court battle, came two days after Neal, a Democrat, set a final April 23 deadline for the IRS to turn over six years of Trump's individual and business tax returns.

Trump broke with a decades-old precedent by refusing to release his returns as a presidential candidate in 2016 and continues to do so as president, saying his tax returns are under IRS audit. The IRS, which is overseen by the Treasury Department, has said that Trump could release his returns even while under audit.

Neal formally requested Trump's returns on April 3, saying his committee was exercising its jurisdiction over IRS audits and enforcement of the tax law regarding the president. Neal set an initial April 10 deadline that the Trump administration missed.

Democrats want the Republican president's tax returns as part of their investigations of possible conflicts of interest posed by Trump's continued ownership of extensive business interests, even as he serves the public as president.

"Congress has no constitutional authority to act like a junior-varsity IRS, rerunning individual examinations or flyspecking the agency's calculations," Consovoy said in his letter. "Congress especially has no constitutional authority to interfere with an ongoing examination."

As Ways and Means chairman, Neal is the only lawmaker in the House authorized to request individual tax information under a federal law that says the Treasury secretary "shall furnish" the data.

"We are incredibly confident about the legal ground that we are standing on. If the IRS does not comply with the request, Chairman Neal will likely issue a subpoena for the returns," said Representative Judy Chu, a Democratic member of the Ways and Means Committee.

Consovoy accused Neal of pursuing a "radical view of unchecked congressional power (that) has no support in law." He dismissed the notion that the request is legislatively justified, saying, "No one actually believes this."

Despite the law's clarity, Democrats have long acknowledged that the request, if denied, would mean a federal court battle that could ultimately be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Consovoy's letter surfaced after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Monday that he will act in accordance with the law regarding the request for Trump's tax returns.

"We're analyzing the law, we're consulting with the Department of Justice," Mnuchin said in an interview on Fox Business Network while reiterating concerns about lawmakers' demands.

"I will follow the law," Mnuchin told the cable network, adding that he would review related "constitutional issues" carefully. Mnuchin is involved in the decision because his department has oversight of the IRS.

Trump's 2016 Democratic presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, responded to the events on Twitter. "The secretary of the treasury and head of the IRS continue to refuse to turn over Trump's tax returns to Congress for reasons even they can't clearly articulate," she wrote.

Echoing Republicans in Congress, Mnuchin said he was concerned Democrats' demand could lead the federal tax agency to become a tool for political disputes.

"This is about whether Congress for the first time, unprecedented, should use a law that protects your privacy to go after someone for purely political reasons. That's a dangerous precedent," Representative Kevin Brady, the top Republican on Neal's committee, told CNBC.

Separately, Politico on Monday reported that Consovoy and fellow Trump attorney Stefan Passantino warned accounting firm Mazars USA against complying with an expected subpoena from another House panel, the Oversight and Reform Committee. The Oversight Committee in March had written to Mazars USA requesting documents related to services provided by the firm or its predecessor to Trump and the Trump Organization.

House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings was expected to issue the subpoena later on Monday seeking a decade's worth of Trump's financial records, according to Politico.

Representatives for Neal and Cummings could not be immediately reached for comment. (Reporting by David Morgan and Karen Freifeld; additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Makini Brice; editing by Mary Milliken and Leslie Adler)

First Published: 2019-04-15 15:27:50
Updated 2019-04-15 21:42:25

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