A salty letter from the Treasury Department has prompted Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) to threaten to hold up President Donald Trump’s nominations to the department.
It all stems from the Democratic request for copies of Trump’s federal tax returns, which the department has blocked contrary to a federal law designed to grant lawmakers access to such documents.
Wyden had asked Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on May 14 how many times the secretary has personally intervened in such requests, among other things.
Rather than answer the question, Treasury adviser Justin Sok responded by rehashing Mnuchin’s arguments about why the department shouldn’t comply with the initial request for Trump’s taxes from House Ways & Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.).
“The reply I received was unresponsive and wholly unacceptable,” Wyden said in a statement.
“If the Treasury Department refuses to answer our questions, I am prepared to again place a hold on department nominees as I did previously when routine requests for information went unanswered,” he said.
Under Senate traditions, any senator can place a hold on a nominee to prevent or delay a confirmation vote, including as an effort to extract unrelated concessions from the executive branch. Thanks to a recent rule change by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), however, which reduced the time it takes to cut off debate, holds may be less powerful than they used to be.
The Trump tax fight is one of the most prominent battles between the Trump administration and Congress. Mnuchin refuses to abide by the tax law requiring his department to hand requested tax returns to Congress, and he has defied a subpoena for those same documents. He claims that Congress has no legitimate legislative purpose for Trump’s tax returns ― a common claim being made by the Trump administration in its near-blanket stonewalling of congressional investigations.
In his letter, Sok reiterated Mnuchin’s main justification for not complying with the tax return request ― that the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel is drafting an opinion letter indicating that asking for the president’s tax returns is somehow unconstitutional. “We will provide a copy of the opinion to you when we receive it,” Sok wrote.
There are five Treasury nominations up for consideration by the Senate Finance Committee, according to Wyden’s office. Wyden, the top Democrat on Finance, previously put a hold on Treasury nominations over the department’s refusal to comply with requests for information and Mnuchin saying he might index capital gains taxation to inflation.
In the past 15 years, Senate Finance Committee chairmen, both Republicans and Democrats, have sought tax returns from the IRS more than a dozen times using the same law the House Ways & Means Committee is using to try to obtain Trump’s tax returns. These requests, all fulfilled, included tax returns of Enron executives, oil and gas companies, the defunct social justice organization ACORN and political nonprofit groups.
“I am not aware of any case in which an IRS Commissioner failed to provide the requested information promptly and completely, including cases that were politically controversial, such as the ACORN and Tea Party investigations,” Wyden wrote in his initial letter to the Treasury Department. “Further, I am not aware of any case in which the IRS or Treasury Department questioned the Chairman’s authority to obtain the requested tax return information.”
Sok’s explanation to Wyden about why Neal’s request for the president’s returns is different from every previous request for tax returns mischaracterized the request.
“This request sought the returns of a single individual taxpayer for the purpose of releasing those returns to the public,” Sok wrote.
Neal requested the returns as part of his committee’s oversight responsibility of the IRS and its annual audits of presidential tax returns. Democrats have claimed they won’t just make the documents public.
Trump recently lost two court cases where his personal lawyers made similar arguments to block subpoenas for the president’s financial information. In both cases, district court judges ruled that Congress has broad authority to subpoena information as part of its role in crafting legislation and overseeing the executive branch.