With Democrats taking over the House of Representatives in January, they are now ready to wield their new-found oversight and subpoena powers on a risky proposition: getting President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
Despite a warning from Trump during Tuesday’s State of the Union address to lay off what he calls “presidential harassment,” Democratic leadership is under growing pressure to flex its authority in a wide range of investigations into alleged ethics violations and supposed conflicts of interest in the administration.
“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said Tuesday. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way.”
Nevertheless, getting Trump’s tax returns has been a key focus of Democrats since he broke with tradition and refused to release them during his campaign, even though there is no law that says he must do so.
Trump took to Twitter on Thursday morning to blast Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and the Democrats in a series of tweets over Schiff’s announcement that he is pursuing more investigations of the president.
“So now Congressman Adam Schiff announces, after having found zero Russian Collusion, that he is going to be looking at every aspect of my life, both financial and personal, even though there is no reason to be doing so,” Trump tweeted. “Never happened before! Unlimited Presidential Harassment. The Dems and their committees are going “nuts.” The Republicans never did this to President Obama, there would be no time left to run government. I hear other committee heads will do the same thing. Even stealing people who work at White House! A continuation of Witch Hunt!
“PRESIDENTIAL HARASSMENT! It should never be allowed to happen again!”
On Thursday, a key branch of the powerful House House Ways and Means Committee is slated to hold a hearing on presidential tax returns. Democrats will call for presidential and vice presidential candidates to disclose 10 years of tax returns as part of a comprehensive ethics reform package known as HR1.
But progressives are urging lawmakers — in particular, Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass. — to take a more strident stance.
“While we strongly support the inclusion of this provision in HR1 to ensure that tax return disclosure is forever a requirement for presidents, we also want to make sure that the committee focuses in on Trump explicitly and uses their granted authority to get his now,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, a watchdog group.
Neal is also facing critical TV ads in his home district. Need to Impeach, the activist organization funded by billionaire Tom Steyer, is running 30-second spots calling on Neal to go after Trump’s returns and begin impeachment proceedings. The group said it intends to run similar ads targeting House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., next week, followed by campaigns against rank-and-file members of key committees.
Kevin Mack, the group’s lead strategist, said it is committing $40 million to fund its current efforts. It is also launching a direct mail campaign and getting on the ground to knock on doors.
“Voters went to the polls in record numbers because they want to hold Donald Trump accountable,” he said. “I think everyone’s a little surprised that Democrats are saying they’re going to wait for some unforeseen time to take action.”
Over the past few weeks, Neal has publicly stated that he does intend to request Trump’s tax returns but has not laid out a timeline for doing so.
“We feel that this is exceptionally important to get right,” Neal spokesman Dan Rubin said. “We’d rather do it right than do it on day one.”
Under the law, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee has the authority to request a confidential review of the tax returns of any individual. The committee would have to vote to allow members access to the information — and even then, it can only be viewed in closed executive session unless the taxpayer agrees to make the return public. Violating that confidentiality is punishable by a fine of up to $5,000 and five years in prison.
“Weaponizing the tax code for political purposes sets a dangerous precedent,” Rep. Kevin Brady of Texas, the ranking Republican on the committee, told reporters Wednesday. “If Democrats or any party can abuse their power to rummage through the tax returns of the president, what will stop them from abusing that power in the future to frankly target any individual American that they see as a political enemy?”
The law does not provide a deadline for the Treasury Department to hand over the president’s returns once a request is made. In addition, any request is almost certain to be met with a court challenge. A Treasury spokeswoman said Secretary Steven Mnuchin will review any request with the department’s general counsel for legality.
Democratic aides say the purpose of Thursday’s hearing is to begin building the public case for requesting the president’s tax returns, which could serve as a bulwark against potential litigation. Democrats are also still mapping out their plan of action for holding the Trump administration accountable. With multiple committees wielding oversight authority, leadership is attempting to coordinate their work.
“We don’t want to be scattershot,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told reporters Wednesday. “We want to do oversight, which is substantive and appropriate.”