The fight for Donald Trump’s tax returns is officially on

After months of promises and amid growing frustration from even some of his Democratic colleagues, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal formally requested six years of Donald Trump’s tax returns on Wednesday — a move that will likely trigger one of the biggest political and legal showdowns of the President’s first term.

The request from the Massachusetts Democrat, which came in the form of a letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig and was first reported by CNN’s Lauren Fox, was long expected. Under a little-known (until recently) 1924 provision in the IRS code, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, which is charged with setting tax policy, is allowed to request anyone’s tax return — including the President of the United States — as long as they can show that it is part of either an investigation or fulfilling Congress’ oversight role.

With Neal making good on his promise in the days following Democrats retaking the House in the 2018 midterms, the ball has been firmly smacked into Trump’s court.

Asked about Neal’s move on Wednesday, Trump seemed disinclined to instruct the IRS and the broader Treasury Department to comply with the request.

“Now, we’re under audit, despite what people said,” Trump said. “We’re working that out as — I’m always under audit it seems. But I’ve been under audit because the numbers are big and I guess when you have a name you’re audited. But until such time as I’m not under audit I would not be inclined to do that.”

That has long been Trump’s stance — that he is under a (now-lengthy) audit and therefore can’t turn over any past tax returns. Which isn’t technically correct. There is nothing that bars Trump from turning over his returns while under audit; President Richard Nixon did exactly that in 1973. Trump, it’s worth noting, is the first major-party presidential candidate since Watergate to not release any tax information; he is also the first president since Nixon to refuse to do so.

The IRS doesn’t discuss ongoing audits so there’s no real way of knowing, at least at the moment, whether Trump is actually under audit. Neal’s letter to the IRS does ask for clarification on whether Trump has been under audit during the past six years, however.

What Trump is saying when he cites his ongoing audit then is not that he can’t release his taxes but that he is unwilling to do so. He went into more detail on that point in a press conference held the day after the 2018 midterms. Said Trump:

“But when you’re under audit — and I’m on a very continuous audit because there are so many companies — and it is a very big company, far bigger than you would even understand. But it’s a — it’s a great company.”

“But it’s big, and it’s complex and it’s probably feet-high. It’s a very complex instrument. And I think that people wouldn’t understand it.”

So, he’s not releasing his taxes because a) he’s under audit (even though that isn’t a real hurdle to releasing them) and b) because they are so complex no normal person would understand them.

Which, well, riiiiiight.

The truth here is that Trump made a conscious decision in the course of his 2016 campaign that whatever was in his taxes — debts, less net worth than he says, etc. — was more damaging to him if it came out than the negative press he would face for not releasing any returns. He previously said that if he ran for president he would “absolutely” release his returns.

So, Trump’s not going to simply capitulate here. Republicans in Congress have already been laying the groundwork for the party’s pushback against Neal’s request: That this is nothing more than a political stunt aimed at embarrassing the President.

That’s not only the pivot point of the political fight that Neal’s move sets off but also the legal one. At issue — and it is nearly certain that after Trump’s administration refuses to hand over his taxes this matter will end up in front of a judge (or judges) — is whether Neal’s request is part of a legitimate investigation or merely trying to score political points in advance of 2020.

The opening skirmish in the war over Trump’s taxes began today. Who wins — and loses — the larger fight could have major ramifications on Trump’s bid for a second term.

Analysis by Chris Cillizza, CNN Editor-at-large

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