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Mnuchin: White House spoke to Treasury about Trump's tax returns

In theory, the dispute over Trump's hidden tax returns is limited to two parties: Congress and the Treasury. For the president's team, that's not good enough.
Image: White House news conference with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and National Economic Director Gary Cohn
US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (R) and National Economic Director Gary Cohn (L) participate in a news conference to discuss the tax reform...

In theory, the dispute over Donald Trump's hidden tax returns is limited to two parties. In one corner, we see the Treasury Department, which has the materials. In the other, there's Congress, which includes one powerful member who's instructed Treasury to turn over the materials.

But in practice, others have decided they'd also like to part of the process. On Friday, for example, a private attorney representing the president told the Treasury Department it should refuse to comply with the recent congressional instructions, at least until the Justice Department can intervene with an opinion on the matter.

Two days later, Trump's White House chief of staff also decided to weigh in, telling a national television audience that congressional Democrats will "never" gain access to the president's tax returns -- materials Trump previously said he'd eventually disclose to the public, before changing his mind without explanation.

This morning, as the Washington Post reported, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin added an additional wrinkle.

Treasury Department lawyers consulted with the White House general counsel's office about the potential release of President Trump's tax returns before House Democrats formally requested the records, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Tuesday.Mnuchin had not previously revealed that the White House was playing any official role in the Treasury Department's decision on releasing Trump's tax returns. [...]Mnuchin revealed the discussions during a congressional hearing. He said he had not personally spoken with anyone from the White House about the tax returns, but he said that members of his team had done so.

The cabinet secretary said he "believes" the communications were "informational." The larger question, of course, is why there were communications at all, since the White House need not play a role in the process.

In case anyone needs a refresher, for nearly a century, federal law has extended authority to certain members of Congress, empowering them to access individual tax returns. The language of the law is not at all ambiguous, and last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) formally instructed the Treasury Department to produce the president’s tax materials, exercising the chairman’s authority under the law.

In a new op-ed, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers made a compelling case that Mnuchin has no choice in the matter: "I trust he will make clear in the near future that he wishes that the IRS commissioner remain consistent with the existing delegation order to comply with the law."

For his part, the president, for reasons he has not fully explained, has said he's prepared to keep his tax returns secret, even if it means taking the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.