- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2019

The IRS would have been breaking the law if it had turned President Trump’s tax returns over to Congress without his permission, the Justice Department has ruled in a new advisory opinion released Friday.

The ruling is the basis for Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s decision to refuse to comply with a House committee’s demand for the tax returns.

While the law says key committees can demand any return and the government “shall furnish” any requested return, the law doesn’t actually mean that, concluded Steven A. Engel, the assistant attorney general at the Office of Legal Counsel, which acts as the government’s internal legal affairs bureau.

Mr. Engel said the law’s broad powers must be read in context.

He said that while one part says the information “shall” be turned over, another part of the same section of tax law says tax information is generally considered protected and Congress must state a valid reason for wanting the information.

In this case, Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal didn’t give a valid reason, Mr. Engel concluded.

“We concluded that the secretary reasonably and correctly found that the committee lacked a legitimate purpose for seeking six years of the president’s tax information,” he wrote.

Mr. Neal, in requesting six years of returns from Mr. Trump and some of his core business and charitable entities, said he wanted to review whether the IRS was living up to its internal guidance that requires the president be audited each year.

Mr. Mnuchin has said Mr. Neal could learn that without having to see the president’s tax returns. He has suspected more nefarious purposes behind the demand.

Indeed, some Democrats have said they want to see the president’s returns because they’re convinced they will find embarrassing information or even indications of criminal conduct in the documents.

Top Democrats, though, said reading into Congress’s motives was conjecture, and they criticized Mr. Engel for his reasoning.

“This opinion is a stain on the Justice Department,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, which along with Ways and Means has the power to request tax returns.

Rep. Don Beyer, Virginia Democrat, said the opinion appears to have been written specifically to justify a decision Mr. Trump made long ago.

Mr. Engel’s memo is not likely to be the final word.

Already, Mr. Trump is engaged in court battles with House Democrats over other document requests, including a demand to see the president’s records held by some of his accounting firms.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled against Mr. Trump’s effort to shield those documents from Congress, saying Capitol Hill deserves great deference in its inquiries and courts shouldn’t second-guess motives.

Mr. Engel, in his Friday opinion, took note of that ruling, but questioned whether it was the right decision.

He said whatever the judge’s reasoning, the Treasury Department, as part of a branch of government co-equal to the legislature, “has an independent duty” to figure out if Mr. Neal’s request is for a valid purpose.

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