Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday encountered a blitz of questions from House Democrats seeking to establish a legal basis for requesting President Donald Trump's tax returns.
It was the first time Trump's top finance chief, a close ally of the President, was forced to publicly address the unprecedented issue of whether he would comply with an obscure law that may require him to turn over his boss' tax returns, if a formal request is made by Massachusetts Rep. Richard Neal, the Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.
Throughout a more than two-hour hearing on Capitol Hill, Democrats asked Mnuchin to state exactly how he would handle such a request, which the secretary carefully tried to side-step, at one point, even jokingly noting, "There's a lot of interest in 6103 today" -- a reference to the tax law.
Mnuchin told lawmakers he would obey the law if he receives a written request from Congress to turn over Trump's tax returns -- but also suggested that the decision to release the returns would fall to the commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service, the country's federal tax collector.
Trump has refused to release his tax returns, breaking presidential precedent .
When asked if he had signed off on 11 billion in disclosures of tax records last year by Georgia Democrat Rep. John Lewis, Mnuchin said, "I don't believe I did."
Each year, the Treasury Department publishes a list of disclosures of tax requests made by state and federal agencies within 90 days of the end of the calendar year.
After consulting with his staff, he told the House panel, "I have been advised that's not something I would normally sign, the IRS commissioner would sign off on."
He subsequently told Texas Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett that he would act in accordance with the law.
"I will consult with the legal department within Treasury, and I will comply with the law," Mnuchin said when asked by Texas Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett on whether he would release the returns.
Speaking to reporters following a second hearing, where he was testifying before the Senate Finance Committee on the President's proposed $4.7 trillion budget, said it would be "premature" to discuss conversations he has had with his general counsel on the matter so far.
"Internal discussions I have with our legal team on any issue, not related to this, would be premature to comment on publicly," said Mnuchin. "I told the Democrats today, if they had it, I was ready to take it. I assume they will deliver it as some point. And again, we'll evaluate it, consider it, and follow the law."
Republicans, who have argued that Trump has the right to privacy, quickly made clear they believe any request from Democrats wouldn't be lawful -- opening up the possibility of an extended fight over whether Mnuchin will hand over the returns if a request is made.
"This is a violation of the law," Republican Rep. Kevin Brady, the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Committee, said outside the hearing.
"I believe Democrats are violating the law, and it sets a dangerous precedent," Brady added.
In the hearing, Mnuchin also explicitly told House lawmakers that in no way has Trump asked him to intervene into the matter or held discussions about the issue with anyone inside the White House or with Trump's attorneys.
When asked by California Democrat Jimmy Gomez whether Trump had asked him to intervene on the matter, Mnuchin said, "He has not."
Gomez pressed the Treasury secretary if he had any discussions with anyone else inside the White House or his attorneys about the issue.
"I have not discussed with anybody in the White House the issue of his tax returns or processing the tax returns," said Mnuchin. "I've had no discussions with his attorneys."
House Democrats have been preparing to ask the IRS for Trump's tax returns under the 6103 provision of the tax code, which gives the leaders of the House and Senate tax-writing committees the power to request taxpayer information from the Treasury Department.
It states that "the secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request."
Mnuchin told the House panel that he has yet to receive a request from Congress on the matter and has already begun to consult with his general counsel on the issue in anticipation of such a request.
"If you have a request for me today, I will accept it," said Mnuchin. "I can't speculate on a request until I see it."
Neal has been working to lay the legal groundwork . He said this week he is "still preparing" his case and has yet to set a deadline to request the president's tax returns.
New Jersey Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, who has been putting pressure on Neal to pursue a request , warned Mnuchin, "it's happening and it's coming."
Since the early 1970s, most presidents have chosen to release their tax returns to the public for the years they serve in office and only while they hold office, which they are not required to do under the law.
The practice began with Jimmy Carter, who ran and took office in the aftermath of Richard Nixon's tax scandal and Watergate. Then came Trump, who in 2016 became the first major candidate to refuse, citing an ongoing audit.
Mnuchin also addressed questions about his own finances in a later Senate hearing.
The government's chief ethics watchdog agency has yet to certify Mnuchin's yearly financial disclosure, which has been held up for more than eight months.
Mnuchin's ethics agreement required him to relinquish his role as chairman of a film production company, Stormchaser Partners, and divest his own stake within 90 days of his confirmation in February 2017.
When asked by Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden about why the Office of Government Ethics has yet to certify his financial disclosure forms, Mnuchin explained he had been directly dealing with a designated career ethics adviser within the Treasury Department. That person, he said, has certified his financial disclosures.
Mnuchin assured Wyden the two offices have been in ongoing discussions to complete the certification process, but that he has been advised by Treasury ethics staff that he is fully in compliant.
"I have been advised by Treasury that I am fully in compliance and there are no ethical issues," said Mnuchin.