Judge Tells NY and House Panel to Reach Deal in Trump Tax Fight

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin testifies before the House Committee on Financial Services on May 22, 2019. Behind him, a graphic recounts various instances when President Donald Trump promised to disclose the tax returns that to date remain shrouded in secrecy. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Before wading into whether Democrats can pursue President Donald Trump’s state tax returns, a federal judge on Monday asked the House Ways and Means Committee and the New York Legislature to assure him they will not render the case moot by state officials abruptly turning over the documents.

“The problem is that no one has committed to me that there won’t be production tomorrow, or Monday, or the Monday after that,” U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols said at a hearing Monday afternoon.

Nichols said that because the committee has yet to request the documents, he has little to no information to assess if they are protected by “absolute immunity,” which applies to the carrying out of legitimate legislative acts.

“I don’t want to run head on into equitable relief without having that question fleshed out,” Nichols said.

Looking to the attorneys to decide an appropriate way for him to “tread as lightly as possible” on the Constitution, he ordered both parties to first come to an agreement by the end of the day Tuesday on an action the court can take to allow the lawsuit to be adjudicated with proper consideration.

The order from the bench followed House attorney Douglas Letter affirming to the judge that the committee could request the state tax returns while in recess until September.

The lawsuit, filed by President Trump last week as a private citizen, takes issue with the TRUST Act passed by New York lawmakers in May. The law authorizes state tax officials to release returns filed by lawmakers and political party leaders in response to requests from three congressional committees, including Ways and Means.

Trump argues the law is a direct political attack, noting it requires the release of the president’s state tax returns “if the committee has already requested the president’s federal returns” from the Treasury Department.

Nichols, a Trump appointee, broached this with Letter.

Because the House Ways and Means Committee is currently involved in another lawsuit in the same court to force the Treasury Department to hand over Trump’s federal tax returns, Nichols deemed as “weak” the attorney’s claim that Trump’s lawsuit to block the committee from requesting his state returns was a distraction from congressional responsibilities.

“You have already embroiled the courts in an interbranch dispute,” Nichols said.

But Letter held his ground by arguing that the committee was within its constitutional authority to look to the courts to enforce a subpoena. But the judiciary, he argued, would be outside the scope of its power to allow a private citizen — in this case the president — to haul a congressional body into court.

Congress should not have to do its job, Letter said, in fear of a “hostile executive or hostile judiciary.”

The D.C. Circuit is currently deliberating a separate fight brought by Democrats to access the president’s financial information, through a House Oversight Committee subpoena for eight years of records from his personal accountants at Mazars USA LLC.

This pending decision, Nichols noted before Monday’s hearing adjourned, could be “important and binding” in the case he is now considering.

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