- The House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing about obtaining President Trump’s tax returns from the secretary of the Treasury.
- The meeting became tense at points, with Republicans accusing Democrats of “weaponizing” the law to go after a political foe.
- Democrats said they are interested in conflicts of interest in Trump’s income and businesses.
WASHINGTON – Republicans and Democrats went back and forth on Thursday in the first congressional hearing to determine the path forward on obtaining President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
The House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee, now controlled by Democrats, listened to tax experts about whether or not it would be prudent to pass legislation that would require all future presidential candidates and their running mates to disclose their tax returns. The subcommittee also probed the legitimacy of formally requesting Trump’s tax information from the Department of the Treasury, as is the committee’s legal right.
Democrats focused on Trump’s potential conflicts of interest through the many businesses he maintained an ownership stake in after becoming president. Many past presidents have placed their assets in blind trusts once they assumed office, but Trump did not do so.
Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, who made several unsuccessful attempts to get Trump’s tax returns over the past two years, questioned what the president could be hiding by keeping his tax information secret.
“Our tax system requires honesty from taxpayers and the IRS. The element of good faith is implicit to a functioning tax system,” Pascrell said. “If a president is cheating the system, or evading taxes, or otherwise violating the tax laws of our country, why should any citizen feel compelled to comply? No one is above the law.”
“We’re not interested in getting someone. We’re interested in following the law. Period,” Pascrell said later in the hearing after Republicans accused Democrats of abusing their oversight authority. “Give us the chance to do that. What am I saying? Give us a chance to follow the law, and we will not stop.”
Witnesses testifying before the committee made clear there is no law requiring presidents to release their tax returns to the public, but because the Ways and Means Committee has the authority to compel the Treasury Department to release them, they should handle it the way they see fit.
“It’s not a law. It’s an informal tradition – a long one – but as I say in my testimony, I think those sorts of traditions are not the way to handle these sorts of issues,” said Joseph Thorndike, the director of the Tax History Project. “If we believe that this kind of disclosure is important enough that we want them to do it, then we should require it. If we don’t think it’s that important, then we don’t need to require it. I don’t think we should let a tradition handle it.”
Republicans warned of setting ‘dangerous’ precedents
But Republicans maintained a steady theme: Obtaining Trump’s tax returns is both unnecessary and sets a dangerous precedent.
Republican Rep. Jackie Walorski of Indiana said forcing the Treasury secretary to hand over Trump’s returns was tantamount to “weaponizing our tax laws to target a political foe.”
“Mr. Pascrell was talking about hypocrisy. I’ll tell you the Democrats are anything but hypocritical,” said Republican Rep. Tom Rice of South Carolina. “They love to weaponize the IRS, aka Lois Lerner, and now going after the president’s tax returns.”
Republican Rep. Darin LaHood of Illinois characterised Democrats’ push as unnecessary. Ohio Rep. Brad Wenstrup reiterated that there is no law on the books requiring Trump to disclose his tax returns.
The Republicans echoed the letter sent to Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal by GOP Reps. Kevin Brady and Mike Kelly, which begged Neal to stop the effort to obtain the tax returns.
“When we start making exceptions for one taxpayer, it begins the process of eroding and threatening the privacy rights of all taxpayers,” they wrote. “This is a risk we cannot and should not take.”
Republicans also parroted Trump’s own reason as to why he has never released his tax returns, suggesting it would be unwise to do so while the president is under audit. Rep. Jodey Arrington of Texas mused that any misdeeds or tax evasion would be discovered in an audit, making any request to view them from the committee unnecessary.
Whether the White House and Republicans resist when and if the committee decides to formally request the tax returns from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin appears imminent remains to be seen.
But the request will likely take some time since Democrats are making sure they have an airtight legal case to request the president’s elusive tax information.
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