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 2-1 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 majority rejected Trump’s claim that the House lacked a legitimate legislative purpose to obtain from the Mazars USA accounting firm financial documents relating to Trump and his company. “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.” The court explained that the House has set forth a batch of legitimate purposes — legislation to require presidential financial disclosures, for example.
An investigation may properly focus on one individual if that individual’s conduct offers a valid point of departure for remedial legislation. Again, such is the case here. 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. That the Committee began its inquiry at a logical starting point betrays no hidden law-enforcement purpose. …
We detect no inherent constitutional flaw in laws requiring Presidents to publicly disclose certain financial information. And that is enough. Without treading onto any other potentially fertile grounds from which constitutional legislation could flower, we conclude that given the constitutionally permissible options open to Congress in the field of financial disclosure, the challenged subpoena seeks “information about a subject on which legislation may be had.”
In short: “At bottom, this subpoena is a valid exercise of the legislative oversight authority because it seeks information important to determining the fitness of legislation to address potential problems within the Executive Branch and the electoral system; it does not seek to determine the President’s fitness for office.”
The importance of the ruling goes well beyond the immediate issue at hand. The case arose before the House commenced its formal impeachment process. Now that it has, even the dissent (a poorly reasoned opinion — “The dissent identifies nothing in the text, structure, or original meaning of Article I or Article II of the Constitution to support such a sweeping rule of legislative paralysis” — by a highly controversial Trump nominee who had never before served on the bench) would acknowledge the House could get this sort of information as part of its impeachment inquiry. The dissent’s amateurish opinion, by the way, is a reminder that the poor quality of Trump nominees means they will have limited sway over veteran judges.
“The ruling is a shot in the arm for committees investigating Trump’s misconduct and a reminder of how many avenues are left to explore,” says former Justice Department spokesman Matt Miller. “The president might be able to delay complying further through an appeal, but it’s a hopeful sign that the courts will say no to his claims of being above the law.”
The decision should also serve as a warning to current and former officials who are abiding by Trump’s bogus “absolute immunity” claims and refusing to appear for testimony. The claim — advanced, for example, to prevent former White House counsel Donald McGahn from testifying before the House Judiciary Committee — fails the straight-face test and in all likelihood will be repudiated by the courts. Witnesses held in contempt for following ridiculous assertions of privilege might find themselves subject to civil contempt fines.
Taking another step back, the decision is a reminder that the “arguments” advanced by the White House counsel (e.g. the temper-tantrum letter refusing cooperation with impeachment proceedings) are not legitimate legal maneuvers. These are intended to pacify the president and give dull-witted right-wing commentators and Fox News hosts talking points. Judging from the polls showing rising support for impeachment, they have been ineffective even as political gimmicks. As a legal strategy, the White House’s frivolous arguments will not carry the day in court. (Justice Department and White House counsel lawyers advancing ludicrous, bad-faith claims should worry about discipline from state bar authorities.)
Former prosecutor Mimi Rocah concludes, “Once again, when the meritless arguments this Administration tries to use to cover up the truth are tested in non-partisan courts where facts, law and precedent matter, they lose.” She continues, “At the end of the day, one of Trump’s legacies will be a body of case law that will check future presidents from abusing power in the way that he has tried.” In the meantime, the decision significantly increases the chances Congress will get its hands on incriminating evidence against Trump.