WASHINGTON — The Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, said Wednesday he was trying to determine who in the Internal Revenue Service wrote a draft legal memo concluding that he must release President Trump’s tax returns to Congress, and he insisted that he disagreed with its findings.
Speaking at a House Financial Services Committee hearing, Mr. Mnuchin said that he became aware of the memo this week after the Treasury Department received inquiries from reporters about a leaked copy of it. He said that he had not reviewed the memo, but that he believed it did not contradict his reasoning for denying the request from the House Ways and Means Committee for six years’ worth of Mr. Trump’s personal and business tax returns.
“The memo is marked draft, it is not a final memo,” Mr. Mnuchin said.
The draft memo, which was written by unnamed agency staff members, determined that the I.R.S. had no choice but to honor congressional requests for Mr. Trump’s tax returns unless he invoked executive privilege to protect them. The memo’s existence was first reported by The Washington Post.
Mr. Mnuchin said he believed the memo does not address the concerns that his legal team expressed when it decided to defy the request. Mr. Mnuchin has refused to comply with the Democrats’ requests because he said they lacked a “legitimate legislative purpose.”
Mr. Mnuchin reiterated that he had followed the guidance of lawyers from his department and the Department of Justice who determined that the Treasury should not release the returns.
Mr. Mnuchin said that it would be “unlawful” for him to fulfill the congressional request and he rejected the suggestion that he was breaking the law not turning over the tax returns.
“I’ve been advised I am not violating the law,” Mr. Mnuchin said.
The Treasury secretary also faced questions from lawmakers about the administration’s trade negotiations with China, which he acknowledged are foundering.
“Unfortunately we were on track for that and we moved backward,” Mr. Mnuchin said of a deal with China.
After talks broke down, Mr. Trump renewed his trade war with China, raising tariffs on $200 billion worth of imported Chinese goods and threatening to hit nearly all the rest with a tax. That has prompted concern from many American businesses that rely on Chinese products, including retailers like Walmart, which have said prices will increase as a result.
Mr. Mnuchin said that he had spoken directly with the chief financial officer of Walmart about the tariffs and ways that the company could avoid passing on costs to Americans. He continued to suggest that consumers would feel little pain from the tariffs because companies such as Walmart would source their products from other countries and because the Chinese currency will depreciate, making China’s goods even cheaper to purchase.
“My expectation is a lot of this business will be moved from China,” Mr. Mnuchin said. “There may be a small number of items where the tariffs may be passed on.”