Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)
By E.J. Dionne Jr.ColumnistApril 11 at 8:23 AM
Surprise, surprise. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin waited until late Wednesday to announce that he would not meet the House Ways and Means Committee’s deadline to turn over six years of President Trump’s tax returns.
A process that is supposed to be independent of politics is clearly drenched in it. A system set up to keep the president from interfering in Congress’ oversight role is being subverted by an administration whose only apparent purpose is to protect Trump. Mnuchin seems to be following what we can now call the Barr Rule, named after Attorney General William P. Barr: Trump can pretty well do whatever he pleases, because he’s president.
Mnuchin was all about Trump’s rights. “The Committee’s request,” Mnuchin said, “raises serious issues concerning the constitutional scope of congressional investigative authority, the legitimacy of the asserted legislative purpose, and the constitutional rights of American citizens.” This from an administration that cares very little about rights for a lot of other people.
As The Post’s Jeff Stein and Damian Paletta reported, Mnuchin’s letter to the committee “appeared to closely track the legal issues raised by Trump’s lawyers in a letter last week in response to the demand made by Ways and Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.).” Meaning that Trump’s desire to protect his private interests is likely to dictate public policy. The treasury secretary is clearly following the lead of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Stein and Paletta wrote:
Mnuchin revealed in testimony this week that Treasury attorneys had consulted with White House attorneys about the possible release of the returns. Mnuchin described the discussions between the White House and Treasury officials as purely “informational,” though he wouldn’t provide more details. White House officials similarly would not offer more information.
Democrats cried foul, saying any White House involvement in Treasury’s decision-making raised the risk of improper political involvement. The reason federal law says the treasury secretary “shall furnish” tax returns requested by Congress is to block any involvement from the White House.
That phrase “shall furnish” is really important. It doesn’t leave any wiggle room. And Neal’s request was carefully framed and comes from a congressional committee that has a long-recognized legal right to individual returns for public policy and accountability purposes.
As former treasury secretary Lawrence H. Summers wrote in The Post, the law says what it says and “for the secretary to seek to decide whether to pass on the president’s tax return to Congress would surely be inappropriate and probably illegal.” Summers continued: “I would surely not have done it. Rather, I would have indicated to the IRS commissioner that I expected the IRS to comply with the law as always.” The law in question, he noted, dates to 1924, and “I have not been able to find any case where the IRS did not promptly provide full disclosure to a tax-writing committee.”
Mnuchin’s letter was not a flat refusal to comply, but it seems clear where this will end up. Which raises the question: Why is Trump so insistent on withholding his tax returns from an American public that has rightly grown accustomed to knowing how a president makes — and has made — his money? What is in those returns? The Trump administration, it seems, will use any means necessary to avoid answering those questions.