WASHINGTON — Democrats have officially launched their assault on President Donald Trump's tax returns.
Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., on Wednesday evening said he had filed a formal request with the Treasury Department for the documents.
It's just the opening salvo in what's sure to be a prolonged battle with the administration to see returns the president has refused to release.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said at a Ways and Means hearing last month that he would protect the president's privacy if members of Congress tried to request his tax returns.
"I have discussed with the legal department in the Treasury that we will most likely receive this request. As I have said, based upon the request we'll examine it and we will follow the law," Mnuchin said then. "And we will protect the President as we would protect any individual taxpayer under their rights."
Democrats have been demanding to see Trump's tax returns since the 2016 presidential campaign, with Neal's request just the first stage of what will likely be a lengthy legal battle to obtain them. Since he was a candidate, Trump has claimed he can't release them because he's under audit by the IRS.
Ways and Means is one of three congressional committees that has the authority to seek to obtain the president's returns. The other two panels that have the legal ability to request an individual's tax returns are the Senate Finance Committee and the Joint Committee on Taxation.
NBC News reported last month that Neal had asked his committee's attorneys to prepare the request for the tax returns.
In early March, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told reporters if House Democrats were to request Trump's tax returns, he expects his committee would do the same, but said that they'd remain private required by law.
"We will — if they get them we'll just ask for them, and I think under our rules or under the law we can get them as long as we guarantee security," he said.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has repeatedly reiterated that it is up to the Ways and Means panel to decide whether to request Trump's returns.
As the committee's chairman, Neal has the power to send a written request to the IRS to provide the information. If the Treasury Department were to deny it, House Democrats will have to decide whether to pursue the tax returns through a legal route. If they are obtained, Neal would then have to designate the panel's members as "agents" to read the returns. They would then have to vote to make the documents public and report them to the full House.