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Pelosi Urges Patience In Going After Trump's Tax Returns

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters at her weekly news conference that Democrats will continue to press for the president's tax returns but need to proceed in a "very careful way."
J. Scott Applewhite
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters at her weekly news conference that Democrats will continue to press for the president's tax returns but need to proceed in a "very careful way."

Updated at 4:15 p.m. ET

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is joining other top Democrats in warning that the road to releasing President Trump's tax returns may be slower than activists are hoping.

Pelosi told reporters on Thursday that she knows "there's this impatience" to see the full picture of Trump's finances but Democrats have to proceed carefully. "It's not a question of just sending a letter," Pelosi said. "You have to do it in a very careful way."

Her comments helped moderate expectations ahead of the first official hearing into the legislative proposals on presidential and vice presidential tax returns. The academic panel and narrow scope of the hearing before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight were far from the explosive investigation into Trump's finance that some progressive Democrats have demanded.

Ways and Means Committee member Bill Pascrell spoke at the hearing to insist that Democrats have a right and a responsibility to provide direct oversight of any president. He maintained that part of that oversight is releasing tax returns that show whether the president is in compliance with tax laws.

"If a president is cheating the system or evading taxes ... why should any citizen feel compelled to comply?" Pascrell said. "No one is above the law."

The New Jersey Democrat has been pushing committee leaders for more than a year to use their authority to view private tax returns. Republicans refused to participate, so now, Pascrell says, Democrats have a duty to act, despite threats of legal action from Trump.

Pascrell insists he believes committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., will go the full distance to request Trump's returns within "two to three months." But all signs from leadership point to a slower, more deliberative process.

It is a familiar dilemma for Democrats in the first weeks of their new majority.

Members generally agree that the public has a right to see the tax entanglements of a president. Things get trickier when it comes to who should be demanding those returns and how quickly they should force what is likely to be a confrontation with the administration over the issue.

There is a mechanism, known as the "committee access" provision, that allows the tax writing committee to request tax records of any taxpayer from the secretary of the Treasury. It is unclear how the agency will respond to that request and whether it will stall or resist efforts to turn over Trump's personal returns to the panel.

But George Yin, a law professor at the University of Virginia, testified at the hearing that existing law requires the Treasury Department to comply. "I don't see any wiggle room in the statute for the secretary to refuse a request," Yin said.

Yin later added that there are no limits on the tax information the committee can request.

Ways and Means Committee members and leaders are cautious about the political implications of releasing Trump's private tax details.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., told reporters Wednesday that while Democrats are serious about their constitutional responsibility to investigate Trump, they aren't going to be reckless when they do it. "We will not be bullied by the president of the United States," Jeffries said. "That said, we're not going to overreach, we're not going to overinvestigate, we're not going to overpoliticize our constitutional responsibilities."

Asked specifically whether he plans to make Trump's tax returns a top priority, Jeffries responded with a different list of legislative goals like lowering health care costs, introducing an infrastructure plan and "cleaning up corruption."

That approach is shared by some moderate members on the committee. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., a former prosecutor, said he wants to defer to special counsel Robert Mueller when it comes to requesting sensitive documents like private tax returns, to avoid interference with that investigation.

"First of all, there's no rush," Kind said. "I gotta believe that the Mueller team already has their hands on the president's tax returns. If they're looking for a possible connection between Russia and his family, there is a danger in trying to go too far too fast."

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.