Trump Loses Another Legal Effort To Block Congressional Document Requests
President Trump loses another lawsuit against his ongoing efforts to stonewall Congress.
A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has ruled against President Trump in his ongoing efforts to prevent Congressional committees from getting copies of documents, including his tax returns and other records:
Congress can seek eight years of President Trump’s business records from his accounting firm, a federal appeals court in Washington ruled Friday in one of several legal battles over access to the president’s financial data.
In a 2-to-1 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld Congress’s broad investigative powers and rejected the president’s bid to block lawmakers from subpoenaing the documents.
The case is one of several clashes between the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican president over Trump’s data that is expected to reach the Supreme Court. In this case, the judges ruled that Trump’s arguments — that the subpoenas were invalid because Congress lacked a “legitimate legislative purpose” for its subpoenas — were incorrect.
“Contrary to the President’s arguments, the Committee possesses authority under both the House Rules and the Constitution to issue the subpoena, and Mazars must comply,” Judges David S. Tatel and Patricia A. Millett wrote for the court. Both were appointed by Democratic presidents.
The president was appealing a lower court’s decision that allowed the House Oversight Committee to move forward with its request for financial statements and audits prepared for Trump and his companies by the accounting firm Mazars USA.
The House sought these records months before the beginning of its recent impeachment inquiry, related to Trump’s alleged efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden.
This case, instead, was prompted by testimony from Trump’s former “fixer,” attorney Michael Cohen, that Trump had exaggerated his wealth to seek loans.
In her dissent, Judge Neomi Rao — appointed by Trump — said that if the House wants to investigate possible wrongdoing by the president, it should do so by invoking its constitutional impeachment powers, not its regular oversight powers.
“Throughout our history, Congress, the President, and the courts have insisted upon maintaining the separation between the legislative and impeachment powers of the House and recognized the gravity and accountability that follow impeachment,” Rao said. “Allowing the Committee to issue this subpoena for legislative purposes would turn Congress into a roving inquisition over a co-equal branch of government.”
In the 66-page opinion written by Tatel, the majority found that the Mazars subpoena fit squarely in a long history of cases in which courts recognized Congress’s broad authority to conduct its constitutional and legislative duties without interference from the other branches.
Like Congress had in the Teapot Dome and other presidential scandals, the House “Oversight Committee has expressed an interest in determining whether and how illegal conduct has occurred,” Tatel wrote. “Even more so,” he said, “the House has even put its legislation where its mouth is,” passing one bill to address problems it is investigating and proposing others.
“Whether current financial disclosure laws are successfully eliciting the right information from the sitting President, occupant of the highest elected office in the land, is undoubtedly ‘a matter of concern to the United States,’ ” Tatel said, citing a past court opinion. He added, “It is not at all suspicious that the Committee would focus an investigation into presidential financial disclosures on the accuracy and sufficiency of the sitting President’s filings.”
In its opinion Friday, the court disagreed with Trump’s attorneys, who contended that the House subpoena served no legitimate legislative purpose, because any financial disclosure laws unconstitutionally “‘impinge on and hence interfere with the independence that is imperative” to the presidency.
Instead, Tatel and Millett said the proper question is whether any law for which the subpoena could be useful “prevents the Executive Branch from accomplishing its constitutionally assigned functions,” to which they said the answer was plainly no, citing other laws regarding presidential finances.
They noted federal law already requires presidents to report gifts they receive and bars them and other federal employees from using inside information to profit on stock trades. The same Constitution that directs the president to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed” also prohibits him from receiving “any . . . Emolument” from foreign governments without Congress’s approval, as well as from the federal or state governments other than a fixed “Compensation” “for his Services.”
“If the President may accept no domestic emoluments and must seek Congress’s permission before accepting any foreign emoluments, then surely a statute facilitating the disclosure of such payments lies within constitutional limits,” they said.
In their ruling, the Appeals Court panel largely tracked the opinion issued earlier this year by District Court Judge Amit Mehta. Specifically, relying largely on precedent from the District Court and the Court of Appeals that has reasserted and enforced the authority of Congress to investigate the agencies of the Executive Branch and the President and his cohorts. As with Judge Mehta, the panel opinion does a very good job of summarizing that precedent,all of which is set forth in the134-page opinion embedded below. Suffice it to say that the Trump Administration 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, something that has become common since Judge Mehta issued his opinion earlier this year.
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 essentially the argument that the White House made in its recent letter to Congress regarding the ongoing impeachment inquiry, which it bizarrely called “unconstitutional.” The Administration’s position is obviously without merit 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.
This is just the latest in a series of defeats that the Administration has suffered in the Federal Courts regarding requests for documents. In addition to Judge Mehta’s opinion in May, the President was also on the losing side of a ruling out of the Federal Court in New York City dealing with a request for documents regarding Trump’s finances from Deutsche Bank. Earlier this week, the President lost a legal effort in New York City attempting to block Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. from obtaining copies of the President’s tax returns. To date, there has not been a case where the Administration has succeeded in quashing a Congressional subpoena.
This ruling is especially relevant in the context of the ongoing disputes between Congress and the Administration, especially now that we are now in the middle of an impeachment investigation. In this context, this argument that Congress lacks a legitimate purpose in its ruling is obviously without merit. If there is anything that has a legitimate legislative purpose, it is an impeachment inquiry, notwithstanding the “legal” argument recently made by the Administration. Because of this, one would hope that in future proceedings Congress does what it can to get the courts to expedite its proceedings. Today’s ruling comes some six months after the initial lawsuit was filed, and while that is fairly quick for proceedings in both the District Court and Court of Appeals, it isn’t quick enough. Courts have shown in the past that they are able to expedite rulings in important cases and there are few things more important than a Presidential impeachment inquiry.
From here, the Administration has two options. It can seek to appeal the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, or it can seek a review by the entire Court of Appeals. It is, of course, within the discretion of both courts as to whether or not they will accept the case for review, but it’s seemingly more likely that the Supreme Court will accept the case for review than it is that the Court of Appeals will accept the case for en banc review. Given the Administration’s apparent commitment to stonewalling, though, it is possible that they’ll take the en banc approach, which would delay the process here at least another month or two. If the Court of Appeals denies the request for en banc review, then the Administration would still be able to go to the Supreme Court.
Here’s the opinion: