Today the Trump White House continues to ratchet up the legal fight for documents which a co-equal branch of government is demanding. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the finance chairman on Trump’s 2016 campaign, formally rejected on Monday night a congressional request for six years of the president’s tax returns.
Readers to this page know history plays a strong part in how I view headlines of the day. With that in mind the following nod to the past about another treasury secretary allows for perspective on the role of this cabinet office.
“Not always could a treasury secretary be counted upon to do the president’s bidding: George Shultz, who led the department under Richard Nixon, established his independence by refusing to order audits of the people on the White House’s “enemies list.”
During a September 1972 meeting in the Executive Office Building, then-White House Counsel John Dean handed IRS Commissioner Johnnie Walters – another Nixon appointee – two lists and said his boss wanted everyone on them audited. Walters resisted and went to Shultz. The secretary skimmed through the lists, which included big donors to Democratic nominee George McGovern, and told Walters to “do nothing.”
The IRS commissioner asked what he should do when White House officials followed up to check on the status of the audits. “Tell him that you report to me. If he has a problem, he’s got a problem with me,” Shultz recalled saying in a 2007 oral history with the Nixon presidential library. Reflecting 35 years later, Shultz said: “It was an improper use of the IRS, and I wouldn’t do it.”
Nixon was irate when he found out. “He didn’t get secretary of treasury because he’s got nice blue eyes,” the president told Dean and White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman. “It was a [expletive] big favor for him to get that job. … He’s going to start repaying. … We’re not going to have a secretary of the treasury who doesn’t do what we say.”
Walters, who passed away at 94 in 2014, recalled the pressure he faced in “Our Journey,” his 2011 memoir. “There were days when it seemed all I could do was break down in my office and sob. That’s how scary it was,” he wrote. “I felt, and still feel, that had IRS implemented the request it would have ruined our tax system for years to come.”
The commissioner put the lists in a sealed envelope and locked them in a safe. When he stepped down in early 1973, Walters took the envelope and put it in a new, private safe. Later, he’d turn it over to congressional investigators. “At no time did I furnish any name or names from the list to anyone, nor did I request any IRS employee or official take any action with respect to the list,” he wrote in an affidavit to the House Judiciary Committee.
We know a lot about this episode, and Nixon’s role in it, thanks to the White House taping system, detailed contemporaneous notes and the various Watergate investigations. New York University’s Michael Koncewicz, who previously worked for the National Archives at the Nixon presidential library in Yorba Linda, Calif., tells the remarkable story in a fantastic book published in October called “They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power.”