Federal Judge Rules Against Trump Administration On Records Request From Congress

The Trump Administration lost what is likely to be the first of many court challenges to its effort to stop Congress from doing what the Constitution requires it to do.

In what is likely to be one of many legal developments in the ongoing showdown between the White House and Congress over document requests, subpoenas, and the appearance of witnesses, a Federal District Judge in Washington, D.C has ruled against the Trump Administration’s effort to withhold financial documents from Congress:]

President Trump on Monday lost an early round of his court fight with Democrats after a federal judge ruled the president’s accounting firm must turn over his financial records to Congress as lawmakers seek to assert their oversight authority.

Trump called the 41-page ruling from U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta of the District of Columbia “crazy” and said he would appeal, adding: “We think it’s totally the wrong decision by, obviously, an Obama-appointed judge.”

Lawyers for the president are fighting document and witness subpoenas on multiple fronts, and Mehta’s ruling came hours after former White House counsel Donald McGahn was directed not to appear before a congressional committee seeking testimony about his conversations with Trump.

Congressional Democrats have vowed to fight for evidence of potential misconduct by Trump and those close to him, and the president’s legal team is broadly resisting those efforts. How those fights play out in court in the months ahead could impact the 2020 presidential race.

In his decision, Mehta flatly rejected arguments from the president’s lawyers that the House Oversight Committee’s demands for the records from Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, were overly broad and served no legitimate legislative function.

“It is simply not fathomable,” the judge wrote, “that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a President for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct — past or present — even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry.”

Trump has argued those congressional inquiries are politically motivated attacks on the authority of the presidency, while Democrats insist the subpoenas are essential to ensuring no president is above the law.
When the lawsuit was filed, Trump’s private attorney Jay Sekulow said the president’s team “will not allow Congressional Presidential harassment to go unanswered.”

The company said in a statement that it will “respect the legal process and fully comply with its legal obligation.

While Democrats scored the first court victory in the fight over the president’s financial records, it is unclear how many of these disputes will reach higher courts, or how those courts might rule.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said the ruling “lets America know that we have ground to stand on and that we have a legitimate argument and the courts support them. . . . I’m glad it was a strong decision; that bodes well, hopefully, in the future for an appeals process.”

Mehta’s ruling drew comparisons between Trump and President James Buchanan, whom historians have blamed for failing to prevent the Civil War and who is generally considered one of the country’s worst leaders. Buchanan, too, complained bitterly about “harassing” congressional inquiries.

Mehta noted that Congress also launched an investigation into the conduct of Bill Clinton before he entered the White House.

“Congress plainly views itself as having sweeping authority to investigate illegal conduct of a President, before and after taking office,” he wrote.

“This court is not prepared to roll back the tide of history.”

The judge gave the White House a week to formally appeal the decision, adding that “the President is subject to the same legal standard as any other litigant that does not prevail.”

An appeal could test decades of legal precedent that has upheld Congress’s right to investigate — a legal battle that is just one part of a broader effort by House Democrats to examine Trump’s finances, his campaign and allegations that he sought to obstruct justice in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation.

In the Mazars case, Mehta cut down Trump’s lawyers’ complaint that Congress was usurping the Justice Department’s powers to investigate “dubious and partisan” allegations of private conduct by inquiring into whether Trump misled his lenders by inflating his net worth.

Rather, Mehta said, a congressional investigation into illegal conduct before and during a president’s time in office fits “comfortably” with Congress’s broad investigative powers, which include an “informing function,” or the power to expose corruption.

The Trump Administration has already appealed this ruling to the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit:

President Donald Trump and his businesses filed a notice Tuesday indicating they will appeal a ruling by a federal judge, who said U.S. lawmakers have the power to demand records from his accounting firm, Mazars USA LLP.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta ruled that the House Oversight and Reform Committee has authority to examine Trump’s personal and business records going back to 2011. The judge rejected Trump’s claim that Congress wasn’t entitled to the documents because they weren’t sought for a legitimate legislative purpose.

The opinion by Judge Mehta, an Obama appointee who has been on the bench since 2014, essentially rejects in all respects the arguments raised by the White House and by President Trump’s accounts to the subpoena. In doing so, he relied on decades of precedent, largely from the U.S. District Court and Court of Appeals level, that has reasserted and enforced the authority of Congress to investigate the agencies of the Executive Branch and the President and his cohorts. Judge Mehta does an excellent job of summarizing that precedent in his opinion, which I’ve embedded below, sp I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that the Trump Administration really had no legitimate legal basis on which to challenge this subpoena, and that’s a finding that arguably applies to any other subpoena Congress may issue which the Administration refuses to comply with

For example, with respect to many of the recent requests for documents that the Administration has rejected, the White House has relied on the supposed lack of a “legitimate legislative purpose” behind the request. This has most notably occurred with respect to the request and subpoena for President Trump’s tax records, which Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin has refused to comply with due to the alleged lack of a “legitimate legislative purpose” to the request. In some of its statements and pleadings, the Administration has claimed that the only “legitimate legislative purpose” that exists would be in connection with pending legislation. This is obviously untrue given the fact that both the Constitution and existing Federal law give Congress the authority and arguably the duty to oversee the operations of the Executive Branch and to investigate potential wrongdoing by Executive Branch officials including, of course, the President himself. This investigatory authority gives Congress all of the “legitimate legislative purpose” it needs for the documents requests at issue in this case and in the others that the White House is seeking to block Congress’s legitimate power to investigate and act.

As the first of what is likely to be many legal challenges to the Trump Administration’s stonewalling, this opinion is important because it provides Congress with powerful support for its legal arguments. Judge Mehta’s opinion is not binding on the rest of the D.C. Circuit or any other Federal District Court or Court of Appeals, of course, but it is likely to be seen as persuasive authority in future cases and to be cited by Congress as such in future legal briefs. This doesn’t bode well for the Trump Administration’s efforts to block Congress from doing its job.

From here, the Administration’s options were clear. One direction it could go, of course, would be to comply with Judge Mehta’s order and provide the requested documents. One advantage of this approach would have been to forego for now the possibility of an adverse ruling by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which would likely set a precedent regarding the proper scope of Presidential objections to Congressional subpoenas that would make it impossible for the Administration to continue challenging Congressional subpoenas. Given the Administration’s apparent commitment to stonewalling, though, it’s no surprise that they have already appealed the case to the Court of Appeals, which will delay compliance for several months at the very least. This is all about running out the clock as much as possible.

Here is Judge Mehta’s opinion:

Trump Et Al v. House Oversi… by on Scribd



FILED UNDER: Congress, Donald Trump, Law and the Courts, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. KM says:

    “It is simply not fathomable,” the judge wrote, “that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a President for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct — past or present — even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry.”

    That’s a very polite way to say “Duh!” Kudos to Mehta for restraining on the sarcasm.

    This is all about running out the clock as much as possible.

    And that’s why it shouldn’t be allowed – into the cell you go and rule on this crap within the week. Things like this should jump to the head of the docket and the timeframe should be shortened considerably. What more could you possibly do to make your case or gather evidence when your entire premise is “Screw you, I do what I want cuz POTUS!!”?

    They’re dirty and they know it’s only a matter of time before it all comes out. Why in the world are we letting these criminals hang on to power so they can damage everything they can on the way out?

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  2. reid says:

    This corrupt administration and party must be quickly brought to task if the system is going to stand.

  3. Paul L. says:

    Note if this gets overturned, there will be no mention of it here.

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  4. grumpy realist says:

    @Paul L.: Do you predict horse races as well?

    Probably with the same success, a.k.a. none.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @Paul L.:

    Note if this gets overturned, there will be no mention of it here.

    While our follow-ups can be sporadic, given that none of us do this full-time, this is something we’d almost surely follow up on for reasons Doug alludes to in the post: it would represent a very significant breach with prior precedent and alter the system of checks and balances considerably.

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  6. Kathy says:

    This is the classic Dennison subtle as a sledge hammer approach. It’s hard to get away withholding documents and witnesses from Congressional oversight. It will prove impossible to do so if all requests for such are denied.

  7. Kit says:

    I don’t think we are anywhere near the final chapter in this little saga.

  8. Jay L Gischer says:

    Of course Trump refers to Mehta as “an Obama-appointed judge”. Every time he says stuff like that he erodes respect for rule of law and the legal system. And yet these days, we see little pushback about this. Normalization is hard to resist.

    Trump seems to me to be someone who, if he hadn’t had a lot of money, would have spent most of his life in jail complaining to everyone who would listen how he was framed and the judge was against him because he was tall.

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  9. SKI says:

    The opinion by Judge Mehta, an Obama appointee who has been on the bench since 2014, essentially rejects in all respects the arguments raised by the White House and by President Trump’s accounts to the subpoena. In doing so, he relied on decades of precedent, largely from the U.S. District Court and Court of Appeals level, that has reasserted and enforced the authority of Congress to investigate the agencies of the Executive Branch and the President and his cohorts. Judge Mehta does an excellent job of summarizing that precedent in his opinion, which I’ve embedded below, sp I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to say that the Trump Administration really had no legitimate legal basis on which to challenge this subpoena, and that’s a finding that arguably applies to any other subpoena Congress may issue which the Administration refuses to comply with

    Indeed. Which is why I objected so strongly to your prior suggestion that they had a colorable argument regarding “legitimate purposes”.

  10. EddieInCA says:

    @Paul L.:

    Paul L. says:
    Tuesday, May 21, 2019 at 11:05
    Note if this gets overturned, there will be no mention of it here.

    I’m sure it will get mentioned here if overturned.

    However, if it’s affirmed all the way to the Supreme Court, you won’t change your mind. You’ll still be convinced that Dear Leader is being slimed, rather than legitimately investigated for possible criminal actions.

    Trump could, literally, shoot someone, and you’d blame the victim for getting in the way of Trump’s perfect shot. The best shot ever. A shot like no one has ever seen before. In fact, no one else ever shot so perfect a shot.

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  11. EddieinCA says:

    @Doug Mataconis

    Can you please stop now with the whole canard about congress needing “legislative purpose” to it’s subpoenas? This judge is basically saying that legislative purpose is whatever congress says it is.

  12. Paul L. says:

    @EddieInCA:
    I look forward to future Congresses getting and leaking the tax returns of the critics and opponents of the party in power using this precedent.

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  13. Tyrell says:

    @reid: Once this thing of Congress demanding a US citizen’s tax returns and other records then the door is opened for you, me, and anyone else: my neighbor, children, the local city council people, the soccer coach, and the ice cream truck driver. This is a way to direct and control people’s activities and choices through getting into their personal information. I will not turn over anything to Congress except a week old Big Mac. Nadler can have it.

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  14. @SKI:

    Except that’s not how our legal system works.

  15. @EddieinCA:
    His opinion relies heavily on the Supreme Court’s 1957 ruling in the Watkins case, one of the two SCOTUS cases that that established the “legitimate legislative purpose” test.

    Also, I have not said in any of the posts I’ve written about these document disputes between Congress and the White House that I agreed with the Administration’s position that the demands were improper, citing the “legitimate legislative purpose” test as the reason. I merely explained what the law said and said that the matter would have to be resolved by a Judge. That’s what happened here, but it’s possible that another Judge might rule differently in another case. This isn’t the last legal word on this issue.

  16. SKI says:

    @Doug Mataconis: huh?

    I said that they don’t have a colorable argument. You said they did. Now you agree they don’t. In what way does the way the legal system work have anything to do with this?

  17. SKI says:

    @Doug Mataconis: that isn’t how I remember your position.

  18. @SKI:

    I said they raised a defense to production and that it would be up to a Judge to resolve it. That’s what happened here and will likely happen with respect to other document related questions. We’ll see what happens on appeal in this case and in any other cases that will come up before other Judges.

  19. @SKI:

    Go read the posts again and show mr where I said the Administration was right.

    Here’s a clue, I didn’t say they were right that the committee didn’t meet the relevant test. I said they were right that a request for documents must have a “legitimate legislative purpose.” Judge Mehta acknowledged that and ruled that the request did have a “legitimate legislative purpose.”

  20. SKI says:

    @Doug Mataconis: At the risk of belaboring a point we now seem to agree on, in this thread I specifically was challenging that they had a colorable argument and you said you thought they had a legitimate dispute.

    Once again (sigh), there is a legitimate legal issue here that the courts will need to resolve.

  21. SKI says:

    @Doug Mataconis: ok, it looks like we have different perspectives and may have been talking past each other.

    Of course they had a legal right to object and ask a court but, given the articulated standard for “legitimate legislative purpose”, their arguments were/are frivolous and not colorable.

  22. @SKI:
    What you don’t seem to understand is that the Administration has a right to object to these document requests and that the resulting dispute would have to be resolved by the courts.

    That is how our legal system works.

  23. SKI says:

    @Doug Mataconis: i fully understand that Doug. I did actually practice law for about a decade before moving to healthcare and compliance. That was never the point I was contesting. We were, and apparently are still, talking past each other.

    My point was that they didn’t have a credible argument to object. They had the right to but no winning play. Just the ability to delay (and maybe kick off a Constitutional crisis if they refuse even after courts tell them to comply).

  24. An Interested Party says:

    Trump could, literally, shoot someone, and you’d blame the victim for getting in the way of Trump’s perfect shot.

    Well, Trump would be just following in Dick Cheney’s footsteps…

  25. @SKI:

    I tend to agree with you but in the posts in question I was merely trying to explain the legal situation rather than take a side.