Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Tuesday said his agency’s lawyers consulted with but did not take direction from the White House on the issue of releasing President Donald Trump’s personal tax returns.
“I don’t see that as interference,” Mnuchin said when asked by New York Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney at a hearing before the House Financial Services Committee. “They consulted with them before. It was not related to the President’s tax returns, only the expectation of getting the request.”
House Democrats last week formally requested Trump’s tax returns from the Treasury Department using an obscure statute of tax law.
Mnuchin, who has previously testified that he would comply with requests, added that he had not and would not ask the White House for permission.
“We would not ever ask for the White House’s permission on this nor did they give us the permission. As I’ve said we consulted which I believe was appropriate of our legal department,” Mnuchin said.
Maloney called “any communication” with the White House as “troubling” and said it “violates the spirit of the law.”
But Mnuchin sought to portray himself as independent of the White House.
“I am not afraid of being fired at all,” Mnuchin said when pressed by Maxine Waters, the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, if anything would override his responsibility to the law.
Waters separately pressed Mnuchin on his recent decision to lift sanctions on companies tied to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Mnuchin’s appearance ended in a clash with Waters over his request to end the hearing in time for a previously scheduled commitment.
“Mr. Secretary, I want you to know that no other secretary has ever told us the day before that they were going to limit their time in the way that you’re doing, so if you want to use them as examples, you have acted differently than they have acted, and as I have said, if you wish to leave, you may,” Waters told him.
“If you’d wish to keep me here so that I don’t have my important meeting and continue to grill me, then we can do that. I will cancel my meeting and I will not be back here. I will be very clear if that’s the way you’d like to have this relationship,” Mnuchin responded.
After further back and forth, Waters fired back: “You are free to leave. Any time you want, you may go.”
After conferring with staff, Mnuchin told the committee he would be willing to stay a little longer.
In an earlier hearing Tuesday, Mnuchin acknowledged for the first time that White House and Treasury lawyers held conversations, which he later described as a consultation before the formal request was made.
Mnuchin said he personally had not been involved in the conversations and had not spoken to Trump or anyone else inside the White House about the release request.
“I have not had any conversations with anyone inside the White House,” Mnuchin told Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Illinois, chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Treasury.
He also added that those conversations happened before House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Massachusetts, made a formal request for the President’s records last week.
When asked Tuesday night by CNN’s Anderson Cooper whether it was acceptable that other Treasury Department employees have consulted with the White House, given that they are both part of the executive branch, Waters replied, “No, it’s not OK.”
“As a matter of fact, let me just say this: We cannot believe anything that’s been said by this President or by Mr. Mnuchin,” Waters added.
Democrats have argued that the President and the Treasury secretary shouldn’t be involved in their request for Trump’s tax returns under the law Neal is using to request Trump’s returns.
Democrats have repeatedly expressed concern that the President’s personal lawyers sent a letter directly to Treasury asking the department not to comply with the request.
“I do have some concerns because obviously Secretary Mnuchin has made it clear that he will do what the President asks him to do, and it’s a little frustrating because when he was before the committee, he indicated the IRS commissioner would follow the law and it wouldn’t be something he’d insert himself into or interfere with,” said Rep. Dan Kildee, a member of the Ways and Means Committee.
“The President obviously does not want to comply with this, but it’s not an option,” he added. “The law is very clear.”
Tuesday’s hearings were the Treasury head’s first appearance since the request. The Trump administration has until Wednesday to respond, which Mnuchin later committed to meeting.
“In general, we try to accommodate these requests,” Mnuchin told reporters in a brief gaggle. “I’m not going to make a specific comment on that, but it would be a good guess.”
During the hearing, Mnuchin made clear that he was speaking for himself and not everyone at Treasury, which includes the IRS.
“I personally wasn’t involved in those conversations,” said Mnuchin. “I acknowledge there were conversations. I was not fully briefed on the extent of those discussions.”
He has said in previous hearings that he would “comply with the law” regarding the release of Trump’s returns.
Mnuchin also told the committee last month that he’s not typically involved in handling other requests for tax returns and that is a job that is handled by the IRS commissioner.
Trump has broken with previous presidential precedent by refusing to release his tax returns, both as a candidate and since taking office, as well as by declining to divest from his family business, the Trump Organization. Democrats have demanded greater transparency regarding Trump’s personal financial commitments as well as any obligations held through his businesses, which are now overseen by his two eldest sons.
Neal is using a little-known provision in the tax code that allows the chairman of House Ways and Means panel to make requests for an individual’s tax information. Neal and other Democrats have argued that the law clearly states that if the chairman asks for the information, the secretary of the Treasury “shall furnish” it.
“This was a very reasonable approach,” Neal told reporters last week. “We wanted to make sure that the case we constructed was one that stood up under the critical scrutiny of the courts.”
On Friday, Trump’s lawyers sent a letter to the Department of Treasury’s counsel dismissing the request for tax returns as a politically-motivated pursuit, writing that “Ways and Means has no legitimate committee purpose for requesting the President’s tax returns or return information. While the committee has jurisdiction over taxes, it has no power to conduct its own examination of individual taxpayers.”
Separately, Democrats in New York on Monday made a fresh push to release Trump’s documents, introducing legislation that would give Congress access to Trump’s state tax returns.
CNN’s Caroline Kelly contributed to this report.