Mnuchin Juggles Day Job Alongside Shielding Trump’s Tax Returns

(Bloomberg) -- Steven Mnuchin’s job as Treasury secretary is to protect the value of the dollar. Now, he’s also protecting the most sought-after documents in America: President Donald Trump’s tax returns.

On Monday, Mnuchin is expected to hold off on House Democrats’ request to release Trump’s returns. It’s the first time a Treasury chief has had to juggle concerns about releasing a president’s personal information with other parts of the job: overseeing the $16 trillion Treasuries market, maintaining economic pressure on global threats, such as North Korea, and leading economic diplomacy with international counterparts.

Monday’s response will be Mnuchin’s third attempt to stave off House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal’s request for six years of Trump’s personal returns, as well as those of the Trump Organization. This time, he’ll be backed with a Justice Department legal review of the request. And at two congressional hearings in April that were supposed to be focused on the budget, Democrats focused on the tax-return fight.

Mnuchin’s more substantive economic plans risk being consumed by the partisan fight over the tax returns. Mnuchin and Congress need each other if they hope to achieve their goals on housing finance reform and an upgrade to U.S. infrastructure.

“This is probably one of the most important decisions I will make,” Mnuchin told reporters last week. “It’s not just about a congressional investigation into the president’s tax returns -- it’s about my responsibility to follow the law.”

Although a 1924 provision of the tax code clearly states that chairs of the Congressional tax-writing committees may request the returns of any filer and the Treasury secretary “shall” provide them, the conflict is over whether the Democrats have a legitimate legislative purpose to do so.

Neal says it’s to ensure the Internal Revenue Service is properly auditing the president, which is standard procedure; the administration says the Democrats’ only purpose is to score political points. Privately, even some Democratic lawmakers question the legitimacy of the request.

But Mnuchin is also a front-line officer in Trump’s larger battle against almost a century of legal precedent protecting Congress’ broad authority to investigate. The president has said, for example, that he doesn’t want former White House counsel Don McGahn, a key witness in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, to testify before House committees.

Mnuchin’s Legacy

“We’re fighting all the subpoenas,” Trump said last month. Mnuchin has echoed that view, telling Congress in an April 23 letter, that its “investigatory power is not unlimited.”

The decision on whether to release Trump’s tax returns, a job that falls to Mnuchin because the IRS is part of the Treasury Department, could end up defining his legacy.

A Trump loyalist who joined the presidential campaign early as national finance chair, Mnuchin has remained by Trump’s side even through the most contentious moments.

In just over two years on the job, Mnuchin, 56, has helped renegotiate multiple trade deals and shepherded the 2017 tax law as well as legislation related to national security concerns from foreign investment in the U.S.

He’s been part of reinstating sanctions on Iran to pressure that country to give up its nuclear program, one of Trump’s key campaign pledges. And he’s helped lead the effort to get a U.S.-China trade deal to the finish line, an outcome that on Sunday suffered a possible setback at the Twitter hand of Trump.

Haggling With Democrats

Now, Mnuchin -- who’s said he intends to stay in Trump’s Cabinet through 2020 -- may spend the next year and a half haggling with angry Democrats in the countdown to the next election.

A legacy consumed by partisan bickering isn’t unique to Mnuchin. Numerous Trump Cabinet members, including former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, saw any hopes of major accomplishments dissolve in the tense political climate.

Neal himself has complained about the focus on Trump’s tax returns “as opposed to some of the substantive problems that accompany many of the other issues as they relate to the American family,” before reiterating that he intends to ask for the returns anyway.

As Treasury secretary, Mnuchin’s most important imprint on the job will be U.S. economic growth during his tenure. So far, the data backs up a good track record, as the U.S. continues to ride an expansion that’s been going for almost a decade, and unemployment is at the lowest since 1969.

While Mnuchin has consistently said he sees the U.S. hitting a sustained growth rate of 3 percent under Trump’s economic stewardship, he’s also said work remains to keep that pace going.

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