Democrats appear to be setting another contempt trap for the administration with a subpoena late last week for the IRS to turn over President Trump’s tax returns, creating another demand the president’s team says it can’t legally comply with — and a new constitutional clash with the House.
A key chairman raised the stakes Sunday by saying Congress is considering using its own “inherent contempt” powers against administration officials who defy subpoenas. That would involve the House ordering its sergeant-at-arms to arrest officials.
“We’re going to have to enforce much of this in court,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on ABC’s “Meet the Press” program. “We are going to have to consider other powers like inherent contempt if the courts take too long.”
Legal scholars describe that power as long dormant but say that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be used to try someone on the House floor and then detain them or impose fines until they comply.
“I think if you fine someone $25,000 a day … until they comply, it gets their attention,” Mr. Schiff said. “We’re going to have to enforce our ability to do oversight.”
Mr. Schiff is one of several chairmen whose fights with the administration could end in that ignominious way.
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Last week, the California Democrat issued a subpoena for the entire special counsel’s investigative report and materials, just hours after another panel, the House Judiciary Committee, voted to recommend holding Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for not turning over the same materials.
On Friday, the House Ways and Means Committee issued a subpoena demanding that the IRS produce six years of tax returns from Mr. Trump personally, as well as a number of his associated business organizations.
Those subpoenas set deadlines for later this month. If the administration defies them, then other contempt votes could follow.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said last week that House leaders were trying to figure out timing for a floor vote on Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler’s contempt proceedings.
Mrs. Pelosi said Mr. Nadler, New York Democrat, wants to move quickly, but she suggested that leaders are looking to bunch several contempt proceedings together at the same time, adding to the heft of Democrats’ argument that the president is being obstructionist with a near-blanket objection to House requests.
Mr. Trump lashed out at the demands on Twitter over the weekend. He called the lengthy investigation into the 2016 election, Russian meddling and his own campaign’s behavior “sick & unlawful.”
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“My campaign was being seriously spied upon by intel agencies and the Democrats. This never happened before in American history, and it all turned out to be a total scam, a Witch Hunt, that yielded No Collusion, No Obstruction,” he said. “This must never be allowed to happen again!”
He also made clear that he has no interest in releasing his taxes. He said he won the presidency in 2016 without releasing his tax information and it should be up to voters whether to reelect him without the documents.
“Make it a part of the 2020 Election!” he said.
No law requires a president or a candidate to release tax data, though Mr. Trump defied decades of common practice by refusing to do so. He said he is under audit and that his attorneys have advised him not to release the information.
Democrats are convinced there is embarrassing information in the president’s records and are determined to make it public. Those feelings were strengthened last week when The New York Times reported it had obtained tax transcript information detailing 10 years of the president’s returns, from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s.
The newspaper said Mr. Trump showed no income tax liability for eight of the 10 years and reported losses totaling more than $1 billion over the years.
Yet Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard E. Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, said his demand isn’t about embarrassing Mr. Trump but rather about finding out how the IRS handles audits of presidents.
Mr. Neal set two deadlines for requests for the returns, but Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin failed to meet either. He said the Democrats’ requests are illegitimate and it would be illegal to reveal the president’s returns.
Tax returns are supposed to be kept strictly secret.
But one provision of law allows the chairmen of the top tax committees to demand access to the information.
Some scholars say that can be done only if there is a legitimate legislative purpose for it, which is why Mr. Neal has cast his demand as an exercise in looking at how the IRS handles audits of presidents.
Yet other Democrats have been less circumspect and say they want to see the returns in order to embarrass the president.
Mr. Mnuchin said he suspects that is the more likely motive for the chairman’s request and has said he won’t comply. He said the Justice Department agrees with him and will soon issue an official opinion to that effect.