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Putin summit puts spotlight back on Trump's tax returns

The Hill logo The Hill 7/22/2018 Naomi Jagoda

Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin are posing for a picture © Provided by The Hill President Trump's tax returns are back in the spotlight after his private one-on-one meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump's comments during a joint press conference with Putin on Monday alarmed lawmakers, leading some to wonder about the president's possible financial ties to Russia.

Democrats have since stepped up their calls to have Congress request Trump's tax returns from the Treasury Department in order to learn more about the president's finances.

"I think we have a cloud that hangs over this whole administration at this moment in time," said Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Trump broke with tradition when he became the first major-party presidential candidate in decades to refuse to release his tax returns, citing an ongoing IRS audit, even though the IRS has said audits do not prevent people from releasing their own tax information.

Lawyers for Trump said in a March 2017 letter that "with a few exceptions," Trump's tax returns from the previous 10 years didn't reflect income from Russian sources, debt owed to Russian lenders or investments in Russian entities. As president-elect, Trump said at a press conference in January 2017 that he doesn't think voters care about his tax returns.

In the early months of his presidency, Democrats tried unsuccessfully several times to get him to release the returns or to have Congress request them.

Under federal law, the chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee, Senate Finance Committee and Joint Committee on Taxation can request tax returns from the Treasury Department and then view the documents in a closed session.

The issue of Trump's tax returns had become less prominent in recent months. But that changed following last week's joint press conference with Putin in Helsinki when Trump questioned the findings of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), a leader of congressional efforts to get Trump's tax returns, brought up the topic Wednesday during a Ways and Means Committee markup of Social Security legislation.

"This committee could act right now to hold this president to account," he said. "We must know if Mr. Putin has compromised our commander in chief."

The next day, Warner and other Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee addressed the matter when the panel was debating the nomination of Trump's pick to lead the IRS, Charles Rettig.

Every Democrat on the committee voted against Rettig's nomination, despite saying he's qualified, because of concerns about new IRS guidance ending a requirement that certain tax-exempt groups disclose information about donor identities. Democrats are worried the guidance will make it easier for foreign governments to influence U.S. politics - a concern exacerbated by Trump's recent behavior.

"The president's refusal to adhere to a 40-year plus, bipartisan, pro-transparency tradition of releasing tax returns, after what happened this Monday, can go on no longer," said Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

Wyden told reporters that he plans to meet with Rettig and ask him about Trump's tax returns and correcting the new IRS guidance.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who said Trump's behavior around Putin couldn't be more humiliating than if the president "had been dragged out on a leash and done pet tricks," said viewing Trump's tax returns could help lawmakers understand the president's behavior.

In addition to Democrats, GOP Rep. Mark Sanford (S.C.) recently reiterated his desire for the administration to make the returns public.

Sanford, who lost his primary to a Trump-backed challenger, told The Hill that it would be in the administration's best interest to release the returns because "transparency on that front answers a lot of questions."

"If not, people are left to wonder," he added.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) - two lawmakers with the authority to request Trump's returns from Treasury - continue to oppose efforts to obtain the documents.

When asked if there's renewed interest in requesting them in light of the Helsinki summit, Brady replied, "No."

Hatch said he "doesn't see any real justification" for requesting Trump's returns and doesn't think the president's returns would show financial ties to Russia.

That kind of stonewalling frustrates Pascrell.

"House Republicans have been complicit and have blocked over a dozen attempts to expose Trump's personal finances to disinfecting light," he said in a statement to The Hill. "But I'm undeterred. I'll stay locked on the Trump tax returns like a junkyard dog until we see them."

Democrats could benefit politically from focusing on Trump's tax returns. A Quinnipiac University poll from February found that two-thirds of voters think the president should make his returns public.

"It is a good issue for Democrats to highlight because there is a strong desire to see what is in Trump's tax returns," said Tim Hogan, spokesman for Not One Penny, a liberal group focused on tax reform.

If Democrats win control of at least one chamber of Congress in the November midterm elections, they would have the ability to request Trump's returns from the Treasury Department. But right now it's unclear whether they would do so.

Wyden said he wasn't going to speculate on whether he would make the request if he becomes chairman. The top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Rep. Richard Neal (Mass.), said in a statement that he's currently focused on other issues, such as lowering health-care costs and providing the middle class with tax relief.

"There will be plenty of time in the future to determine if this course of action is necessary, but Democrats want to ensure that committee time and resources are always being used for the people, to better the lives of the American family," he said.

But there's one person who may already have a copy of Trump's tax returns: special counsel Robert Mueller.

There has been some speculation in the press about whether Mueller has a copy of Trump's returns as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. A spokesman for the special counsel's office declined to comment.

Steven Cash, an attorney at Day Pitney and former chief counsel to Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), said he wouldn't be surprised if Mueller has obtained Trump's returns.

Cash said that if Mueller "has determined that the tax returns are relevant and appropriate, he would have taken the legal steps to get them and would have them now."

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