Representative Richard Neal, the Springfield Democrat who is the chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, on Wednesday formally asked the Internal Revenue Service for six years of President Trump’s tax returns.
The request is the first such demand for a sitting president’s tax information in 45 years. The move is likely to set off a huge legal battle between Democrats controlling the House and the Trump administration.
‘‘Congress, as a coequal branch of government, has a duty to conduct oversight of departments and officials,’’ Neal said in a statement. ‘‘The Ways and Means Committee in particular has a responsibility to conduct oversight of our voluntary federal tax system and determine how Americans — including those elected to our highest office — are complying with those laws.’’
The request comes after Trump’s former fixer and attorney Michael Cohen provided testimony earlier this year that suggested the president lied on his financial disclosure forms. Cohen’s testimony gives the committee a stronger argument that it needs the returns to investigate a potential crime instead of for a political fishing expedition.
Last month, Neal repeatedly demurred when asked to provide a timeline for when he’d seek the records. Now, Neal wants six years of Trump’s personal tax returns, as well as the returns from eight business entities associated with Trump.
Neal made the request in a two-page letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig in which he sought broad details about Trump’s personal tax returns from 2013 to 2018 — including whether the returns are or have been under audit. That was the explanation Trump used during the campaign for refusing to release his tax returns.
Trump told reporters Wednesday he ‘‘would not be inclined’’ to provide his tax returns to the committee.
Trump broke with decades of tradition for presidential candidates by refusing to release his income tax filings during his 2016 campaign. Trump said at a news conference following the November election that the filings are too complex for people to understand.
The Ways and Means Committee is allowed to demand any American’s tax returns, including the president’s.
“I take the authority to make this request very seriously, and I approach it with the utmost care and respect,” Neal said in a Wednesday statement. “This request is about policy, not politics; my preparations were made on my own track and timeline, entirely independent of other activities in Congress and the Administration.”
Neal’s request was first reported by CNN.
The IRS, said Neal, has a policy of auditing the tax returns of all sitting presidents and vice presidents, but little is known about how effective that program is.
“On behalf of the American people, the Ways and Means Committee must determine if that policy is being followed, and, if so, whether these audits are conducted fully and appropriately,” said Neal. “In order to fairly make that determination, we must obtain President Trump’s tax returns and review whether the IRS is carrying out its responsibilities. The Committee has a duty to examine whether Congressional action may be needed to require such audits, and to oversee that they are conducted properly.”
According to Neal’s office, the committee is looking at how the IRS audits and enforces the federal tax laws as they pertain to a president. His committee, according to his office, cannot consider whether legislative changes are needed without the president’s tax returns and administrative files such as work papers, audit materials, examiner notes, and correspondence that show how the IRS enforces the laws against the country’s commander-in-chief.
“It is critical to ensure the accountability of our government and elected officials,” Neal said in a statement.
The request, according to Neal’s office, “is not about impeachment.”
In his letter to Rettig, Neal requested tax returns for eight of Trump’s business entities. For each of those entities, Neal wants a statement specifying whether the return for the business is or was under any type of audit or examination. Additionally, if a business’ return was selected for an audit or examination, Neal wants to know why.
Neal wants “the requested return and return information” provided to his office by April 10, according to the letter.
In a Wednesday statement, Senator Ron Wyden, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said, “The law is crystal clear — the Treasury Department must provide tax returns to the Ways & Means and Finance Committees when the chairman requests them.”
“I expect the Treasury Department to comply in a timely manner,” Wyden said. “Chairman Grassley should make the same request so Senate Finance Committee members are also able to access them.”
Representative Kevin Brady of Texas, the senior Republican on the Ways and Means panel, denounced the move as ‘‘an abuse of the tax-writing committees’ statutory authority.’’
‘‘Weaponizing our nation’s tax code by targeting political foes sets a dangerous precedent and weakens Americans’ privacy rights,’’ Brady wrote in a letter Wednesday to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who oversees the IRS. ‘‘As you know, by law all Americans have a fundamental right to the privacy of the personal information found in their tax returns.’’
The legal battle set to ensue could take years to resolve, possibly stretching beyond the 2020 presidential election.