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Treasury sec takes fight over Trump's tax returns to a new level

The law says the administration must honor Richard Neal's demand for the president's tax returns. Team Trump isn't overly concerned with what the law says.
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...

It should have been a relatively straightforward process. Last week, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.), exercising his authority under the law, formally told the Treasury Department that he's demanding access to Donald Trump's tax returns. The Democratic chairman set a deadline, telling the IRS to make the materials available by April 10.

Those looking for loopholes in the law are probably going to be disappointed. The statute states, "Upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Finance of the Senate, or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request."

So, left with no choice, the Trump administration is complying with the law, right? Not exactly.

The Treasury Department won't meet House Democrats' deadline of Wednesday to hand over President Donald Trump's tax returns, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said.In a letter to Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Mnuchin said the Treasury was continuing to review Democrats' request in light of "serious issues" about whether the request is proper.

The president's Treasury secretary will apparently oversee a review of the request personally, though I'm not at all sure what that means in practical terms.

As Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said in a written statement, "How many lawyers and how much time does it take for Secretary Mnuchin to understand that 'shall' means 'shall'?"

Under the circumstances, that seems like a fair question.

At this point, we're in a bit of a holding pattern. The IRS was supposed to make the tax materials available, but it didn't, handing this off to Treasury. Mnuchin should make the returns available, but he's decided to contemplate for a while whether and how to follow the law.

For his part, Chairman Neal issued a statement of his own, which read in its entirety, "I received a letter this evening from Secretary Mnuchin related to my request to the IRS commissioner. The department has decided not to allow the IRS to comply with my request by the April 10 deadline. I will consult with counsel and determine the appropriate response to the commissioner in the coming days."

It seems likely that all of this will soon be pushed to the federal courts, where the president may have some confidence that the U.S. Supreme Court and its five-member conservative majority will protect him.

In the meantime, there's a broader concern that shouldn't go overlooked. Yes, Trump's tax returns may very well include important information, which would help explain the Republican's insistence on secrecy. But it also matters that the president and his team remain overtly hostile toward the rule of law, certain that Trump gets to play by his own set of rules.

In this administration, the very idea of accountability and checks and balances are niceties that deserve respect -- when politically convenient. Indeed, the question for the White House is simple: if Trump and his team don't have to honor this law, which other laws does the president feel comfortable ignoring?

We were reminded just this week that Trump occasionally sees following the law as optional. Is that why his tax returns remain hidden today?