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Confidential draft IRS memo says tax returns must be given to Congress unless president invokes executive privilege
By Jeff Stein and Josh Dawsey, Washington Post
May 21, 2019

A confidential Internal Revenue Service legal memo says tax returns must be given to Congress unless the president takes the rare step of asserting executive privilege, according to a copy of the memo obtained by The Washington Post.

The memo contradicts the Trump administration’s justification for denying lawmakers’ request for President Trump’s tax returns, exposing fissures in the executive branch.

Trump has refused to turn over his tax returns but has not invoked executive privilege. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has instead denied the returns by arguing there is no legislative purpose for demanding them.

But according to the IRS memo, which has not been previously reported, the disclosure of tax returns to the committee “is mandatory, requiring the Secretary to disclose returns, and return information, requested by the tax-writing Chairs.”

The 10-page document says the law “does not allow the Secretary to exercise discretion in disclosing the information provided the statutory conditions are met” and directly rejects the reason Mnuchin has cited for withholding the information.

“[T]he Secretary’s obligation to disclose return and return information would not be affected by the failure of a tax writing committee . . . to state a reason for the request,” it says. It adds that the “only basis the agency’s refusal to comply with a committee’s subpoena would be the invocation of the doctrine of executive privilege.”

“Executive Privilege”, in the best case, is designed to protect the ability to give honest and straightforward advice. Hard to see how it applies here, it might to a detailed discussion of how to prepare his returns with Unidicted Co-conspirator Bottomless Pinocchio’s Accountant but not the returns themselves which are (presumably) a neutral, factual, document; explicitly designated I might add as subject to precisely this kind of inspection and oversight by Congress in Law that has not been contested or challanged (successfully) in about 100 years.

Executive privilege is generally defined as the president’s ability to deny requests for information about internal administration talks and deliberations.

On Friday, Mnuchin rejected a subpoena from the House Ways and Means Committee to turn over the tax returns, a move that probably will now lead to a court battle. Mnuchin has criticized the demands as harassment that could be directed against any political enemy, arguing Congress lacks a “legitimate legislative purpose” in seeking the documents.

Breaking with precedent, Trump has refused to provide tax returns, saying without evidence they are under audit.

Mnuchin and other senior staff members never reviewed the IRS memo, according to a Treasury spokesman. But the spokesman said it did not undermine the department’s argument that handing over the president’s tax returns would run afoul of the Constitution’s mandate that information given to Congress must pertain to legislative issues.

The spokesman said the secretary is following a legal analysis from the Justice Department that he “may not produce the requested private tax return information.” Both agencies have denied requests for copies of the Justice Department’s advice to Treasury.

Some legal experts said the memo provides further evidence that the Trump administration is using shaky legal foundations to withhold the tax returns.

“The memo is clear in its interpretation of the law that the IRS shall furnish this information,” said William Lowrance, who served for about two decades as an attorney in the IRS chief counsel’s office and reviewed the memo at the request of The Post.

Daniel Hemel, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School who also reviewed the memo for The Post, said the document suggests a split over Trump’s returns between career staffers at the IRS and political appointees at that agency and the Treasury Department.

“The memo writer’s interpretation is that the IRS has no wiggle room on this,” Hemel said. “Mnuchin is saying the House Ways and Means Committee has not asserted a legitimate legislative purpose. The memo says they don’t have to assert a legitimate legislative purpose — or any purpose at all.”

“One potential basis” for refusing the returns, the memo states, would be if the administration invoked the doctrine of executive privilege.

But the IRS memo notes that executive privilege is most often invoked to protect information, such as opinions and recommendations, submitted as part of formulating policies and decisions. It even says the law “might be read to preclude a claim of executive privilege,” meaning the law could be interpreted as saying executive privilege cannot be invoked to deny a subpoena.

Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service published a review of Section 6103 of the Internal Revenue Code that found the code “evinces no substantive limitations” on the Ways and Means Committee’s authority to receive the tax returns.