WASHINGTON – During a testy day on Capitol Hill, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was confronted with a barrage of questions pertaining to President Donald Trump’s tax returns, whether his department would comply with a congressional request for the documents and threatened to never voluntarily appear before members of Congress again.
Mnuchin, who appeared before Congress for two separate hearings on Tuesday, said while he had not spoken with the White House about the request from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., for six years worth of Trump’s tax returns, the Treasury Department’s legal team has had conversations with the White House about the returns.
“Our legal department has had conversations prior to receiving the letter with the White House general counsel,” Mnuchin said. “I acknowledge there were conversations. I am not briefed on the full extent of those conversations.”
He added that the conversations were “informational” and he was not part of them.
Democrats, during the hearings and on social media, said they were concerned over the discussions as it led to questions over whether the White House was attempting to interfere with the issue.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., said the revelations were “deeply troubling & certainly violates the spirit of the law, if not the letter of the law,” she said on Twitter, adding that “We need to get to the bottom of this.”
Mnuchin did not say whether his department would hand over Trump’s returns to Congress, which gave a Wednesday deadline.
“I have said we will comply with the law,” Mnuchin said. “I have not made a comment one way or the other on whether we will provide the tax returns.”
Mnuchin also stressed that the president has a right to privacy, even echoing a talking point among Republicans suggesting that Americans aren’t interested in seeing Trump’s returns.
“The general public when they elected President Trump made the decision to elect him without his tax returns being released,” Mnuchin said. Acting White House chief of staffMick Mulvaney made similar remarks over the weekend.
The head of the IRS, meanwhile, agreed with Democrats that it’s primarily his decision to make – though he reports to Mnuchin. IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told lawmakers that “we’re working on” a response to a request from Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal.
“The decision is mine with the supervision of Treasury,” Rettig said, adding he and Mnuchin have discussed who would handle the response but haven’t reached a conclusion.
As it neared 5 p.m. during his second hearing of the day before the House Financial Services Committee, things got more contentious with Mnuchin asking to be dismissed and Chairwoman Maxine Waters, D-Calif., saying no.
Mnuchin said he needed to leave soon to get to a meeting with a foreign leader. Waters asked if he could cancel his plans to hold a news conference after the hearing in order to answer questions from several remaining lawmakers and get to his meeting.
The pair sparred back-and-forth with Mnuchin complaining he’d already spent four hours answering questions but was happy to come back before the committee. Waters told Mnuchin “we’re all pressed for time,” pressed for him to answer whether he’d come back next month and then told him that if he needed to leave then he could go “anytime you want.”
“If this is the way you want to treat me then I’ll rethink whether I’ll voluntarily come back here to testify, which I’ve offered to do,” Mnuchin said, visibly flustered.
He continued: “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 would like to have this relationship.”
Waters said Mnuchin was offering to cancel his meeting and then signaled for other lawmakers to continue questioning him.
“You’re ordering me to stay here,” Mnuchin asserted, something Waters denied. He later said he would stay for an additional 10 minutes but added he was under “no obligation to stay” and that he’d “withdrawn my offer to voluntarily come back.”
“You may choose to do whatever you want,” Waters said, signaling for lawmakers to continue questioning him.
Last week Neal requested six years of Trump’s personal and business returns, relying on a 1924 statute that says the Treasury Department “shall furnish” them when requested.
Trump has broken with tradition by not voluntarily releasing his tax returns. He routinely says – as he did Friday – that he’s under audit and therefore won’t release his returns. But Rettig reiterated that there’s no rule prohibiting taxpayers under audit from releasing their returns.
Democrats want access to the returns as part of investigations into Trump’s business dealings and his campaign. Trump’s private attorneys have asked Treasury to deny the request as well.