U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta rejected Donald Trump’s efforts to invalidate the House Oversight Committee’s subpoena of the president’s financial records on Monday. Mehta’s decision affirms Congress’ constitutional authority to investigate the chief executive—a power that Trump asked the court to curtail. It is thorough and emphatic, a stinging repudiation of the president’s bizarre legal theory.
In April, the House Oversight Committee issued a subpoena for eight years of financial records from Mazars USA, which provided accounting services to Trump. The committee took this step after former Trump attorney Michael Cohen testified that the president engaged in financial misconduct. Its subpoena requested financial records pertaining to the president and his businesses going back to 2011. These records may be incredibly damning, with the potential to reveal financial misconduct by the president and his associates. Trump filed suit, asking the court to void the subpoena because, his attorneys claimed, it exceeded Congress’ investigative powers.
Unfortunately for the president, this complaint has no basis in law. The Constitution grants Congress all “legislative Powers,” and the Supreme Court has confirmed that the power to collect “needed information” is a fundamental “attribute of the power to legislate.” Moreover, the Constitution’s speech or debate clause generally bars courts from interfering with congressional subpoenas, so long as they are issued for some legitimate legislative purpose. Courts cannot force Congress to prove a link between its investigation and some future legislation. Nor are they permitted to search for some covert illicit motive among committee members. So long as the committee provides a justification that is legitimate on its face, the courts must treat the subpoenas as valid.
Here, Metha explained, the House Oversight Committee easily met this low hurdle. The committee listed four reasons it sought to investigate Trump’s finances. First, it wished to determine whether Trump “accurately reported his finances to the Office of Government Ethics,” noting that its finding would help it determine “whether reforms are necessary to address deficiencies with current laws, rules, and regulations.” That goal clearly “falls within the legislative sphere.”
Second, the committee sought to learn whether Trump is complying with the Constitution’s foreign emoluments clause. Although its scope is disputed, this provision, at a minimum, bars the president from accepting any gift from a foreign government without Congress’ consent. “Surely,” Mehta wrote, “incident to Congress’s authority to consent to the President’s receipt of Emoluments is the power to investigate the President’s compliance with the Clause.” Any congressional investigation meant “to carry out an expressly delegated” constitutional function “is plainly valid.”
Third, the committee sought to discover whether Trump “has undisclosed conflicts of interest that may impair his ability to make impartial policy decisions.” This goal, Mehta explained, falls squarely “within Congress’s province to legislate regarding the ethics of government officials. Indeed, exposing conflicts of interest is one of the core objectives of the Ethics in Government Act.”
Fourth, the committee wished to know “whether the President may have engaged in illegal conduct before and during his tenure in office.” And because the House of Representatives has the power to impeach a president, it surely has the power to investigate him for impeachable offenses. “It is simply not fathomable,” Mehta noted, “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.”
Thus, the House Oversight Committee’s justifications for its subpoena passes legal muster. The House wishes to fulfill its duties under the Constitution and gather information for possible legislation. No president can compel a court to impede a congressional committee’s exercise of its constitutional powers.
To illustrate just how wacky Trump’s lawsuit is, Metha opened by discussing President James Buchanan’s similar effort to block an investigation into his affairs, noting dryly that Trump has “taken up [Buchanan’s] fight.” And he declined to put his ruling on hold while Trump appeals because the president failed to raise a “serious legal question going to the merits.” Ouch.
Trump has filed a similar lawsuit in New York to invalidate subpoenas for records from Deutsche Bank and Capital One. Expect that to fail too. And don’t expect any appeals court, including the Supreme Court, to jump to Trump’s defense and freeze the House’s subpoenas. Whatever the wisdom of its actions, Congress obviously has the authority to uncover the president’s financial records. Any court that stands in its way will be overstepping its own constitutional authority.
Mazars now has seven days to comply with the subpoena, barring such a successful appeal. In one week, then, the House—and, soon after, the public—may know a great deal more about Trump’s taxes, businesses affairs, and alleged financial malfeasance. It might even uncover more evidence of the president’s high crimes and misdemeanors.
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