For some of the president's critics, the push for Donald Trump's tax returns should've happened months ago, but congressional Democrats preferred a far more cautious approach. The House Democratic majority worked slowly and methodically, hoping to reach a point at which they could credibly claim the release of the documents was absolutely necessary.
That point apparently came yesterday.
Democrats have officially launched their assault on President Donald Trump's tax returns.Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., on Wednesday evening said he had filed a formal request with the Treasury Department for the documents."I today submitted to IRS Commissioner Rettig my request for six years of the president's personal tax returns as well as the returns for some of his business entities. We have completed the necessary groundwork for a request of this magnitude and I am certain we are within our legitimate legislative, legal, and oversight rights," Neal said in a statement.
In case this isn't obvious, it's important to emphasize that this wasn't a subpoena. It also wasn't a request, per se. As we discussed last month, under existing federal law, a limited number of congressional leaders have the legal authority to access individual tax returns from the Treasury Department.
Yesterday, the Democratic chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee decided to exercise that power. Since the law was created in the wake of the Teapot Dome scandal in the 1920s, no administration has ever denied a lawmaker access to tax returns under this law.
If the Trump administration complies -- at this point, that's a pretty big "if" -- the information Richard Neal demanded will answer more than a few questions.
Among other things, for example, the committee chairman has demanded information that would show whether Trump, who claimed he couldn't disclose his tax returns in 2016 because he was under audit, was actually under audit.
What's likely to happen next is unclear. In theory, the Treasury Department should follow the law, Neal should gain access to the president's tax materials, and congressional scrutiny would continue. In practice, however, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently declared, "We will examine the request and we will follow the law ... and we will protect the president as we would protect any taxpayer" regarding their right to privacy.
There is, of course, a conflict between the first part of that sentence and the second.
If you're thinking this will lead to a historic court fight over the administration's reluctance to follow the law in pursuit of unexplained secrecy, you're not alone.