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N.Y. Democratic lawmakers ready new front to obtain Trump's tax returns

A bill was introduced in the state Legislature that would allow Congress to request the president's state filings.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting,
President Donald Trump speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition's annual leadership meeting, Saturday April 6, 2019, in Las VegasJacquelyn Martin / AP

As congressional Democrats begin what could be a tumultuous battle to obtain President Donald Trump's tax returns, New York lawmakers are trying to make it easier for them to get their hands on the president's state filings.

Legislators introduced a bill Monday that would amend the state law to permit the N.Y. Department of Taxation and Finance commissioner to release any state tax return requested by the leaders of the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Finance Committee or the Joint Committee on Taxation for any "specific and legitimate legislative purpose." The bill seeks to amend state laws which generally prohibit the release of such tax information.

If passed, the congressional committees will have to file a request with the state after other efforts to gain access to federal tax filings through the Treasury Department have failed.

The New York Times reported on the legislation earlier Monday.

Democratic state Sen. Brad Hoylman, who is sponsoring the legislation, told NBC News on Monday that he believes it is "imperative" for the New York Legislature to assist Congress with the issue of Trump's tax filings.

"Donald Trump has broken 40 years of political tradition by not releasing his returns," Hoylman said. "His representatives say they will block all congressional efforts to obtain those returns through existing procedures. Well, it turns out that New York state has those returns and can do its part to assist the Congress in their oversight responsibility by releasing them to a relevant committee that requests them."

Though the bill would only apply to the president's state returns and not the federal ones currently at the center of a Washington battle, tax filings from the president's home state that additionally serves as the headquarters of his business are likely to contain much of the same information congressional lawmakers are seeking from his federal returns.

And, with the New York Legislature and the governor's mansion being under Democratic control, there is a path to the bill's passage, though similar measures did not take off in the state Assembly during the prior legislative session when Republicans held a majority in the state Senate.

Brad Hoylman
Sen. Brad Hoylman, D-New York, speaks to members of the New York State Senate in 2017.Hans Pennink / AP file

This latest effort is not the first made by New York Democrats to reveal Trump's tax filings. Another bill known as the NY Truth Act, first introduced in 2017, would require the Department of Taxation and Finance to release five years of tax returns from a series of top federal and statewide officials if they earn income in the state. And a bill sponsored by Hoylman would require presidential and vice presidential candidates to reveal their taxes in order to appear on statewide ballots. As the Times reported, similar efforts are under consideration in states such as California and New Jersey.

Hoylman told NBC News that he is hopeful the legislation introduced Monday can pass because it is "narrowly tailored to be responsive to an investigative committee of Congress, and I believe does not result in a broad request for the tax returns of elected officials."

"This is a very specific bill responding to a very specific request," he said, adding, "The public rightfully is concerned that their tax information remain private, and this bill only authorizes the state to provide the tax returns to investigative committee upon written request."

But Ed Cox, chairman of the New York Republican Party, told NBC News the legislation was simply the result of "Trump derangement syndrome."

"No matter how they dress it up for legal purposes ... and they're trying different wordings to do it, this is aimed at one individual, the president of the United States, with the purpose of re-litigating the 2016 campaign in which the people of the United States knew that he had not released his tax returns and they still elected him president of the United States," he said. "They want to re-litigate an issue that's already been decided by the people of this country."

The bill is "aimed just at" Trump and seeks to remove "rights and privileges that he has as a citizen of the state of New York to keep his tax returns here private," Cox said.

If the bill passes in the state Legislature, Cox said he believes Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo will sign it into law because it "conforms to his political ambitions to run for president of the United States."

"He will be a presidential candidate, and he will sign it," Cox said.

Cuomo ruled out a 2020 presidential bid last year, but later seemed to suggest he could enter the race if former Vice President Joe Biden opts against running.

In an interview Tuesday morning with public radio's WAMC, the governor expressed support for the latest legislative effort to release Trump's taxes so long as it applies to any elected official in the state.

"The question is going to be legality because there’s going to be a lawsuit in 11 seconds," Cuomo said. "So, and putting on my old AG hat, if it looks politically targeted, the courts will be more likely to strike it down. So as broad as you can do it, the better. House committee for any elected official in the state of New York, you can get the tax return."

The White House declined comment.

The introduction of the bill Monday comes days after House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., formally requested six years of Trump's personal and business tax filings from the IRS under a statute that allows him to demand an individual's tax returns. If the Treasury Department denies his request, that could set off a legal battle to obtain them.

Responding to that news, Trump told reporters he was "under audit" and would not be releasing the returns.

"I'm always under audit, it seems," he said. "Until such time as I'm not under audit, I would not be inclined to do that."

Trump has said he has been under audit since the 2016 election cycle, using that explanation as his rationale for not releasing his returns. Although the IRS has regularly audited presidents and vice presidents since the 1970s, being under audit does not preclude Trump from making his tax information public, nor did it stop past presidents from doing so.

Trump is the only major presidential candidate of either party since the early 1970s not to release his tax returns, and Democrats have pushed for him to release his taxes since the 2016 election.

In a letter Friday to the Treasury Department, Trump’s attorney, William Consovoy, called on the IRS to reject Neal's request, saying it "would be a gross abuse of power" that could lead to a political tit-for-tat. On Sunday, acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told "Fox News Sunday" that Democrats will "never" be able to obtain Trump's tax filings.

"Keep in mind, that was an issue that was already litigated during the election," he added. "Voters knew the president could have given his tax returns, they knew he didn't, and they elected him anyway, which is of course what drives the Democrats crazy."

Another Trump attorney, Jay Sekulow, accused Democrats in an interview with ABC"s "This Week" of using the IRS as a "political weapon" to obtain the returns and promised to fight the move if needed.

Democrats, meanwhile, insisted they need to see the returns to know how Trump's personal holdings and interests may be affecting his decision-making.