President Trump’s acting chief of staff said Sunday that Democrats will “never” see the president’s tax returns, abandoning Trump’s long-held position that he would someday release the documents for public inspection and setting up what could be a protracted fight with Congress.

Mick Mulvaney and other Trump allies spent the weekend casting Democrats as politically motivated for formally asking the Internal Revenue Service to turn over six years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns. House Democrats last week asked the IRS to release the documents, setting a deadline of Wednesday, part of an ongoing battle with the White House as they seek information about Trump for numerous investigations into his businesses, campaign and conduct.

The Trump administration has been trying to shield the president from such inquiries, and Mulvaney was adamant that Democrats won’t ever gain access to Trump’s tax returns. When asked about it on “Fox News Sunday,” Mulvaney said: “Never. Nor should they.”

Trump broke precedent as a presidential candidate when he refused to release his tax returns, citing an ongoing IRS audit. His continued resistance has emboldened the new Democratic majority in the House to use its oversight authority to obtain them, arguing that it is Congress’s responsibility to ensure there are no conflicts of interest hiding in the president’s personal finances.

House Democrats seek 6 years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns

Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, sent a letter to the IRS asking that the tax returns be turned over to Congress, setting up what could be a lengthy legal fight; Trump has said he is prepared to challenge the request all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. An attorney for Trump already asked the Treasury Department to deny the Democrats’ request, calling it a “gross abuse of power.”

Acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney has characterized Democrats’ efforts to get hold of the president’s tax returns as politically motivated. (Evan Vucci/AP)

A Ways and Means spokesman declined to respond to Mulvaney’s comments on Sunday.

Federal law gives certain congressional committees the ability to ask the IRS for access to individual tax returns. If the treasury secretary refuses, Democrats can seek to force the release via the courts. Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.), a member of the Ways and Means Committee, said on ABC’s “This Week,” that Trump doesn’t get to decide what “this coequal branch of government” does with its authority.

Kildee said the committee wants to know whether the IRS is actually conducting the audit that Trump has referenced, and he said the public deserves to know whether the president has any conflicts of interest that would impact his decision-making.

Mulvaney seemed to contradict the president at one point during his interview, saying that even under audit “you could always allow people to see” the tax returns. He also argued that while the law allows the IRS to hand over tax returns to Congress, the American public has already said it doesn’t care about Trump’s returns.

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

In January, 60 percent of Americans said they wanted the new House Democratic majority to obtain and release Trump’s tax returns, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll.

Peter M. Shane, a law professor at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said that because the current statute allows congressional committees to make the request for an individual’s tax returns, “the fact that the president doesn’t want to turn them over is, by itself, legally irrelevant.”

Democrats would need to provide a legitimate reason for needing to see the returns, and Shane said Democrats could choose to provide a list of legitimate inquiries they’re undertaking to support the request. Trump’s allies assert there is no legitimate reason and allege that politics is driving the move.

Shane said it also would be difficult for Trump to argue that he’s being singled out when every other president and major-party nominee in the past four decades has allowed their tax documents to be made public.

“So viewing this as a burden or an undue incursion of the rights of political candidates is just not in accord with actual practice,” Shane said.

Even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who during the 2016 presidential campaign said there is “only one logical explanation for Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his returns: there is a bombshell in them . . . a bombshell of unusual size,” criticized Democrats’ strategy for obtaining them.

Romney said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that while he’d like to see the president keep his word and release the tax documents, the Democrats cannot compel Trump to give them up.

“So, he’s going to win this victory,” Romney said. “He wins them time after time.”

Trump’s personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, argued during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” that the Democrats were using the IRS “as a political weapon.” He then suggested that Trump could turn around and ask for Nancy Pelosi’s tax returns but hasn’t.

The No. 4 House Democrat, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), defended his party members during an interview on “Fox New Sunday,” putting the onus on Trump for breaking norms.

“No other president in modern times has had to have their tax returns requested,” Luján said, “because they’ve all voluntarily shared them.”