WASHINGTON - The Democratic chairman of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee asked the Internal Revenue Service for six years of President Donald Trump's personal and business tax returns on Wednesday, in a long-awaited move that is widely expected to lead to a lengthy court battle with the Trump administration.
The request, in a letter from Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, is viewed by Democrats in the House of Representatives as a vital first step toward oversight of Trump's income taxes and business network, which some lawmakers believe could be rife with conflicts of interest and potential tax law violations.
"It is critical to ensure the accountability of our government and elected officials. To maintain trust in our democracy, the American people must be assured that their government is operating properly, as laws intend," Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement.
IRS and U.S. Treasury officials were not immediately available for comment.
Trump defied decades of precedent as a presidential candidate by refusing to release the tax documents and has continued to keep them under wraps as president, saying his returns were "under audit" by the IRS.
Trump's former personal lawyer Michael Cohen recently testified in Congress that he does not believe the president is being audited.
But Trump continued to make the claim on Wednesday.
"We're under audit despite what people said, and we're working that out as I'm always under audit it seems. But I've been under audit for many years because the numbers are big and I guess when you have a name, you're audited," Trump said at a White House meeting with U.S. military leaders.
"But until such time as I'm not under audit, I would not be inclined to do that," he said in response to a reporter's question about the committee's request.
Neal based his request on his committee's oversight jurisdiction of the IRS, specifically its alleged audits of Trump and the extent to which the agency has enforced the tax laws against the president.
Independent analysts welcomed the move.
"The Ways and Means Committee's strongest oversight ability is making sure the IRS is operating properly," said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center think tank in Washington.
It was the third time this week that a Democratic-led House committee exerted oversight pressure on Trump. Earlier on Wednesday, the House Judiciary Committee authorized its chairman to subpoena Special Counsel Robert Mueller's full investigation report on Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. election.
The House Oversight Committee had subpoenaed a former White House security chief on Tuesday.
Republicans oppose Neal's effort, saying such a move sets a dangerous precedent by turning the confidential tax documents of a U.S. citizen into a political weapon.
"This particular request is an abuse of the tax-writing committees' statutory authority and violates the intent and safeguards of ... the Internal Revenue Code,” Representative Kevin Brady, the committee's top Republican, said in a statement.