May 6, 2019 / 10:05 PM / 16 days ago

U.S. Democrats edge toward court battles over Mueller, Trump's taxes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. congressional Democrats edged closer on Monday to fighting two legal battles - one over the Mueller report and one over President Donald Trump’s tax returns - after administration officials stonewalled lawmakers’ requests for those documents.

FILE PHOTO - House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler (D-NY) begins a House Judiciary Committee hearing on "The Justice Department's investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election", that U.S. Attorney General Barr was scheduled to appear at, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 2, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

The House Judiciary Committee set a vote for Wednesday on whether to cite Attorney General William Barr with contempt over his refusal to provide the panel with a full, unredacted version of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation report and underlying evidence from the probe.

Separately, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he would not provide the House Ways and Means Committee with six years of Trump’s individual and business tax returns, despite a formal request by Chairman Richard Neal under a law authorizing such actions.

“I have determined that the committee’s request lacks a legitimate legislative purpose ... the department is therefore not authorized to disclose the requested returns and return information,” Mnuchin said in a letter on Monday to Neal.

Neal responded in a statement: “I will consult with counsel and determine the appropriate response.”

Both developments put the two oversight committees on a course leading to federal court action to obtain the documents, as the Trump administration escalated its push to block multiple probes by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

Republicans in Congress have rejected the efforts of both Democratic-led committees as political gamesmanship intended to appeal to the Democratic Party’s voting base ahead of the 2020 presidential election, in which Trump is seeking re-election.

“The attorney general’s failure to comply with our subpoena ... leaves us no choice but to initiate contempt proceedings,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler said in a statement released along with a committee report citing Barr with contempt of Congress.

“If the department presents us with a good faith offer for access to the full report and the underlying evidence, I reserve the right to postpone these proceedings,” he said.

If Nadler’s committee votes as expected to adopt a contempt citation on Wednesday, the measure will go to the full House for a floor vote that is likely to pass. Lawmakers say such an outcome would lead to a civil court case against Barr, raising the possibility of fines and other legal actions for failure to comply.

Democrats also expect Neal’s battle with Mnuchin over Trump’s tax returns to wind up in a lengthy court battle, although Neal could begin by issuing a subpoena for the documents.

OVERSIGHT EFFORTS

The Mueller report and Trump’s taxes are central to the oversight efforts of six Democratic-led House committees that are probing the president, his associates and his presidency.

The Mueller report detailed extensive contacts between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Moscow, but did not find that there was a conspiracy between Moscow and the campaign. The report also describes actions Trump took to try to impede Mueller’s investigation.

If lawmakers established that Trump obstructed justice by seeking to impede Mueller, Nadler’s panel could move to impeachment proceedings against the president for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Democrats also want Trump’s returns as part of their investigations of possible conflicts of interest posed by his continued ownership of extensive business interests, even as he serves as president.

Trump broke with a decades-old precedent by refusing to release his tax returns as a presidential candidate in 2016 or since being elected, saying he could not do so while his taxes were being audited.

But his former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, told a House panel in February that he does not believe Trump’s taxes are under audit. Cohen said the president feared that releasing his returns could lead to an audit and IRS tax penalties.

Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Peter Cooney

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