US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin prepares to testify on "The President's FY2020 Budget Proposal"  before the House Ways and Means Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 14, 2019. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Mnuchin denies request for Trump's tax returns
01:40 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal is set to meet with House counsel to decide how to respond to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s decision to deny Neal’s request for President Donald Trump’s tax returns, Neal told CNN on Tuesday.

The Massachusetts Democrat said in an interview that they have “exhausted” the letter writing process and he’ll make his next steps likely by the end of the week. The chairman did not say if he’d issue a subpoena, but that he’d rely on guidance of counsel.

“The actual letter was not unanticipated so as you might expect, we have already prepared a strategy for how we intend to proceed,” Neal said. “I will be talking to House counsel in the course of the next day or so and we will have a response by the end of the week.”

Mnuchin sent a letter to Neal on Monday announcing he won’t turn over six years of the President’s personal and business tax information. Neal said he expected to see the Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion by Tuesday or Wednesday.

Beyond his comments about speaking to lawyers, Neal has not advised his Democratic committee members yet on how he will respond to Mnuchin’s decision.

Two rank-and-file members on the committee – Bill Pascrell of New Jersey and Dan Kildee of Michigan – told CNN they largely trust Neal to make the next move. But, there is little doubt that pressure may soon build from liberal members of the caucus as well as outside groups who want Neal to escalate the fight for Trump’s tax returns sooner rather than later with a subpoena and even a potential move to hold the Treasury secretary or IRS commissioner in contempt of Congress.

“Well, I don’t think another letter will get us very far,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a liberal Democrat on the committee who has urged swift action. “It will take more than letters and speeches. I believe we need to take prompt legal action.”

Neal, a pragmatic, business-minded Democrat who has made his reputation in the House as a legislator who prioritizes deal making over partisan fireworks, has numerous options at his disposal for how to respond. But Neal’s style is far from that of his fellow chairmen like Jerry Nadler of the House Judiciary Committee, who has seemed to embrace the fight with the administration in the face of Trump’s stonewalling.

Behind the scenes, members paint a picture of a Ways and Means chairman who has deliberated the tax issue, but hardly let it consume the committee. Instead, Neal – in the midst of his fight for Trump’s tax returns – attended a White House meeting last week on infrastructure, making a direct pitch to the President that infrastructure should be a key priority and regaling Trump with stories of the painfully ill-equipped gate 35X at the DC-area Reagan National Airport to make a point about the importance of working with Democrats on the issue.

Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee believe that Mnuchin’s refusal to hand over Trump’s tax information is unwarranted and illegal. Kildee, a close ally of Neal’s on the committee, said that the executive branch’s assertion that the committee does not have a legitimate legislative purpose is not their call to make. Instead, he said the public can expect that Democrats are prepared to go to court, but the route to get there is still not clear.

As chairman of House Ways and Means, Neal’s options are:

  • Go straight to court, citing a breach of the 6103 statute with Mnuchin refusing to turn over the tax returns (this is a different option than most committee chairman have. Most chairman have to issue a subpoena, but in this case he could go to court without one).
  • Issue a subpoena on top of his 6103 request, something that House lawyers have advised could add an extra layer of protection when the issue moves to court.
  • Hold IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig or Mnuchin in contempt of Congress (although this would be seen as an aggressive move and one that Neal has not said or inferred he’d pursue at this point).

Kildee told CNN that he doesn’t know what path Neal would take. He said “no path is off the table but the chairman will make that determination. I don’t want to speculate on which path would be the wisest.”

Kildee said he thinks Neal “has done it right” up to this point and that he has full faith in the chairman.

Pascrell told CNN over the phone that he personally would like to move ahead with contempt to make it clear just how serious the House Ways and Means Committee is about getting the tax returns, but he said that he’s speaking for himself and himself alone.

“Richie has a much more … it is going to be a more nuanced kind of thing. It is going to be more nuanced, but it could be just as effective if (the administration) believes we are not going to back off. They are obviously trying to stall everything. You’d have to be from a funny farm on Mars to not know what they are doing,” Pascrell said of the Trump administration’s stonewalling.

Pascrell said that the Trump administration has shown nothing but “contempt” for congressional Democrats in their search for information and that

“This is Russia and we have to extract Russia out of the United States,” Pascrell said. “These are the exact tactics that the Russians use. I don’t like it.”

CNN’s Ellie Kaufman contributed to this report.