WASHINGTON • US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has defied a congressional subpoena seeking six years of President Donald Trump's tax returns, all but guaranteeing a federal court battle with Congress over the records.
In a widely expected move, Mr Mnuchin on Friday rejected a demand for the documents from House Ways and Means Committee chairman Richard Neal, saying the panel lacks "a legitimate legislative purpose" for obtaining the tax records that Democrats view as critical to their efforts to investigate Mr Trump and his presidency.
"We are unable to provide the requested information in response to the committee's subpoena," Mr Mnuchin said in a letter to Mr Neal, released ahead of a deadline for delivering the documents.
Mr Neal later issued a statement, saying he was "consulting with counsel on how best to enforce the subpoenas moving forward".
The Democratic chairman had earlier said he was inclined to turn to the federal court to obtain Mr Trump's tax returns, if the administration missed the deadline.
"We will likely proceed to court as quickly as next week," Mr Neal had told reporters.
This is a way for some congressmen to go south on the issue: leave it to the courts. It really absents us from our responsibilities.
REPRESENTATIVE BILL PASCRELL, who helped lead the push to obtain Mr Trump's tax returns, on avoiding contempt charges.
Asked whether he would also pursue contempt charges against administration officials, Mr Neal told reporters: "I don't see that right now as an option. I think that the better option for us is to proceed with a court case."
Mr Trump's refusal to cooperate in numerous congressional investigations of him, his family and his presidency is forcing Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, to look to the courts to enforce their oversight powers under the US Constitution.
The likely decision to avoid contempt proceedings disappointed some Democrats on Mr Neal's tax panel. "This is a way for some congressmen to go south on the issue: leave it to the courts. It really absents us from our responsibilities," said Representative Bill Pascrell, who helped lead the push to obtain Mr Trump's tax returns.
Unlike Mr Neal, other top Democrats faced with administration defiance over inquiries have moved towards contempt charges.
House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler's panel voted last week to recommend that the House cite Attorney-General William Barr for contempt of Congress over his refusal to comply with a subpoena for special counsel Robert Mueller's unredacted Russia investigation report.
Mr Trump's decision to assert executive privilege over Mueller-related material last week has stymied efforts by Democrats to get current and former members of the executive branch to testify, including Mr Mueller himself, according to congressional aides.
Democrats had sought to have Mr Mueller testify by last Thursday, but sources familiar with the matter on Friday said that Mr Mueller was unlikely to appear before the committee.
Democrats could move forward with more contempt citations as early as next week. Mr Nadler has threatened to hold former White House counsel Don McGahn in contempt, if he fails to show up for a hearing slated for Tuesday.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff is also planning "enforcement action" against the Justice Department over a separate Mueller-related subpoena.
Democratic leaders are considering bundling separate contempt citations into a single House of Representatives package to bring to a floor vote later this year.
Mr Schiff's committee meets tomorrow to release closed-door testimony by Mr Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who is in prison. Cohen talked to the panel in March about issues including Mr Trump's involvement in pursuing a Moscow tower project during the 2016 presidential election.
Mr Trump at the time publicly denied any links to Russia.