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