Mnuchin rejected the request from House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, a Democrat, saying that it lacks “a legitimate legislative purpose.”
Neal’s request is one of a battery of efforts by Democrats targeting Trump that they initiated after gaining control of the House of Representatives in the 2018 midterm election. Trump refers to these efforts as “presidential harassment.”
Mnuchin’s rejection sets up a potential federal court battle that could drag on for months.
“We are unable to provide the requested information in response to the committee’s subpoena,” Mnuchin wrote in a letter to Neal ahead of his deadline for handing over the tax returns.
Hours prior to the rejection, Neal told reporters he would to turn to the federal courts as a next step, rather than initiating proceedings to find Mnuchin in contempt of Congress.
“We will likely proceed to court as quickly as next week,” Neal said.
After Mnuchin’s formal rejection, Neal issued a statement saying he was “consulting with counsel on how best to enforce the subpoenas moving forward.”
Taxpayers are entitled to keep their tax returns private. Neal’s committee is empowered to request tax returns, but the law requires the committee to cite a valid legislative purpose.
In response to Neal’s initial request for the president’s tax returns, Trump’s personal attorney, William Consovoy, argued against the release, writing that the request fails to provide a legitimate purpose, is motivated by partisan politics, and sets a dangerous precedent for the privacy rights of both politicians and private citizens alike.
“Ways and Means has no legitimate committee purpose for requesting the president’s tax returns or return information,” Consovoy wrote. “His request is a transparent effort by one political party to harass an official from the other party because they dislike his politics and speech.”
Neal’s preference for court action over contempt proceedings disappointed some Democrats on his committee.
“This is a way for some congressmen to go south on the issue: leave it to the courts,” said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.). “It really absents us from our responsibilities.”
Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee voted earlier this month to recommend that the full House find Attorney General William Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to lift redactions from the final report on the Russia investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Barr was not required to release the Mueller report but moved quickly to make a largely unredacted version public. The attorney general has also made a minimally redacted version available for review by lawmakers.
After Democrats moved to contempt proceedings against Barr, the White House asserted executive privilege over the entire Mueller report. Presidents can assert executive privilege to prevent the disclosure of internal executive branch deliberations.
After a 22-month investigation, Mueller concluded there is no evidence to establish that Trump or anyone in his campaign colluded with Russia. Mueller also did not charge the president with obstruction of justice. Barr and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein concluded that the special counsel’s final report did not present sufficient evidence to merit an obstruction of justice charge.
Democrats had sought to have Mueller testify by May 23, but sources familiar with the matter said on May 17 that Mueller was unlikely to appear before the committee.
The judiciary committee Chairman, Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), also threatened to hold former White House Counsel Don McGahn in contempt if he fails to appear for testimony on May 21. The White House has also asserted executive privilege to prevent McGahn from testifying.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is also planning an “enforcement action” against the Justice Department over a separate subpoena seeking the full Mueller report and the underlying foreign intelligence and counterintelligence material.
Democratic leaders are considering bundling separate contempt citations into a single House of Representatives package to bring to a floor vote later this year.
On May 15, White House counsel Pat Cipollone sent a letter to Nadler saying Congress has no right to conduct a “do-over” of Mueller’s probe, and that it would not participate in his committee’s investigation.
Reuters contributed to this report.