Congressional Republicans on Thursday criticized efforts by House Democrats to obtain President Donald Trump’s tax returns with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy warning that the request “sets a dangerous standard of having the federal government used as a political weapon” and dismissing the move as “a waste of time.”
The defense from GOP lawmakers is the first rebuttal from Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill following the request for the tax returns as Republicans seek to call out what they see as Democratic overreach, the latest front in a multi-tiered attack on the Trump presidency from multiple congressional investigations into his administration, his businesses and his personal finances.
McCarthy weighed in during his weekly news conference to the announcement that House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal has now formally requested the President’s tax returns from the Internal Revenue Service by accusing the committee of having “voted yesterday to weaponize the IRS to attack political opponents.”
“Not only is it a waste of time, it sets a dangerous standard of having the federal government used as a political weapon,” McCarthy warned.
McCarthy argued that Democrats have not accepted Trump’s victory in the last presidential election and are trying to “use the power of government” for political retaliation.
“The Democrats decided the day after the election that they would not accept it,” he said. “So what do they do now? They use the power of government, the fear that every American has that government has become so strong they go after you because they don’t politically agree with you. It’s wrong. … Do we really want to have a body that goes after people’s IRS reports simply because you politically disagree with them?”
McCarthy characterized the tax return request as “all about politics,” contradicting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s comments earlier in the day when she defended the effort as “a policy matter.”
Trump himself sidedstepped a question Thursday afternoon over whether he’ll tell the commissioner of the IRS to not comply with the congressional request for his tax returns.
“They’ll speak to my lawyers and they’ll speak to the attorney general,” Trump told reporters from the Oval Office.
House Democrats defend the request
Pelosi and other Democrats have argued that the tax return request is a matter of necessary congressional oversight of the executive branch and that Democrats are on solid legal ground in making the request.
“The law is very clear,” Pelosi said during her own news conference on Thursday. “The law says that upon written request from the chairman of the Committee of Ways and Means or the chairman of (Senate) Finance or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation … the Secretary shall furnish, shall – not may, should, could – shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request.”
The House Democratic leader added that Neal has been “very thoughtful” in his actions.
“The President and the vice president are audited, that’s what happens,” Pelosi added. “Congress has an oversight responsibility to see that that is happening, if it has happened and how it has happened, and that’s the policy aspect of this.”
Rep. Kevin Brady, the top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, made a very different argument on Thursday, telling reporters that he believes the request “violates the law,” is “an abuse of the committee’s authority” and “should be withdrawn.”
Brady said that he believes the committee chairman’s request for the President’s tax returns is “another step in the Democrats’ misguided rush to impeachment.”
“Civil liberties and privacy still matters in America. No party in any Congress should have the authority to rummage around in your tax returns purely for political reasons and if they can do that to the President, what stops them from doing that to any political enemy,” Brady said. Echoing McCarthy, he added, “That’s the dangerous precedent that comes when you weaponize the tax code.”
Neal told reporters on Thursday that he took roughly three months to build the case for requesting the returns, which he argued was reasonable given the gravity of the request.
“This was a very reasoned approach. Our position from day one was that this would be measured,” Neal said. “This is likely to wind its way through the federal court system and we wanted to make sure that the case that we constructed was in fact one that would stand up under the critical scrutiny of the federal courts.”
Key Senate Republican argues Democrats want to ‘bring this President down’
In a speech on the Senate floor on Thursday, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Senate Finance chairman, however, accused Democrats of being disingenuous in their rationale for why they wanted the returns.
Neal has said he wants to investigate the presidential audit program, but Grassley argued that the request is just an excuse to get Trump’s tax information because of a “desire” on the part of Democrats “to use all of the resources at their disposal to find something – anything – to bring this President down.”
“Democrats say they’re interested in the tax returns of all presidents when they’re really just interested in one: President Trump,” Grassley said, adding, “It’s motivated by the Democrats’ intense dislike of this President. It’s motivated by their frustration over losing an election that they thought they’d easily win. It’s motivated by their desire to use all of the resources at their disposal to find something – anything – to bring this President down.”
Grassley has the same authority to request Trump’s tax returns as Neal does, but has said he doesn’t plan to ask for the returns unless Neal actually got something.
Some congressional Republicans have expressed support for the idea of the President releasing his returns, however.
Asked on Thursday if every 2020 candidate, including Trump, should release their tax returns, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said: “Yes.”
When pressed on the House Democratic effort to request the returns, Cruz said, “Of course it’s political and House Democrats are attacking President Trump across the board, but yes, candidates for president should release their tax returns. I’ve said that for a long time.”
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.
CNN’s Phil Mattingly and Maegan Vazquez contributed to this report.