Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Wednesday that Congress and the administration have different interpretations of the law regarding Congress’s access to tax returns, and he said if Democrats want President Trump’s returns they’ll have to get the courts to force the release.

“This will go to the third branch of government to be resolved,” he told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Mr. Mnuchin also said he hasn’t spoken with Mr. Trump or anyone else in the White House about his stance, saying he’s not doing it to protect the president but rather to prevent a bad precedent of Congress weaponizing the tax system for political purposes.

He has refused to comply with the demand by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, Massachusetts Democrat, to turn over six years of returns from Mr. Trump and some of the president’s associated businesses.

Mr. Neal has now issued a subpoena, creating a conflict that could end with Mr. Mnuchin being found in contempt of Congress.

Section 6103 of the tax code says the department “shall” turn over returns when requested by the chairs of certain key congressional committees.

But Mr. Mnuchin said his department and the Justice Department don’t see that as an absolute command, and say it depends on what Congress’s purpose is for the request.

The secretary said that opinion is shared by the top levels of the IRS as well.

Mr. Neal says his request for the president’s returns does have a legitimate purpose. He said his committee is trying to figure out if the IRS is following its own rules that require an audit of the president and vice president every year.

Mr. Mnuchin said he’d be happy to brief lawmakers about that, without divulging the president’s actual tax information.

And IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig, testifying to the committee after Mr. Mnuchin, begged for lawmakers to accept that offer, saying they would be comforted by the answers.

“I would suggest somebody meet with our IRS people,” he said.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, though, said Congress should get the information it asked for.

The Maryland Democrat said the IRS had assured Congress that President Nixon’s taxes were accurate — yet Mr. Van Hollen said it later became clear Nixon was underpaying what he owed.

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