Jurisprudence

Congress Will Likely Soon Have Its Hands on a Trove of Trump Financial Documents

President Donald Trump walks off the podium after presenting the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor at the White House on May 22, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
President Donald Trump walks off the podium after presenting the Public Safety Officer Medal of Valor at the White House on Wednesday in Washington, D.C.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos rejected Donald Trump’s attempt to invalidate the House Financial Services and Intelligence Committees’ subpoenas of the president’s financial records on Wednesday. His decision, if upheld on appeal, would allow Congress to compel Deutsche Bank and Capitol One to provide the House with information regarding the Trumps and their businesses. The president’s attorneys will now seek a stay from an appeals court, and, if spurned there, probably the Supreme Court. Neither is likely to intervene in Trump’s favor, though it is not entirely out of the question.

Ramos’ ruling—which he read from the bench and had yet to be released as of publication time—is similar to U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta’s Monday decision affirming Congress’ authority to scrutinize the executive branch. Under the Constitution, congressional committees have broad power to conduct investigations, both to carry out its enumerated powers (like impeachment) and to inform potential legislation. The Supreme Court has held that courts have a limited ability to impede Congress’ oversight so long as its actions fall within a “legitimate legislative sphere.” So long a congressional committee has stated a facially legitimate justification for its investigation, courts must treat its subpoenas as valid. They may not seek some hidden, illicit motive.

Here, the House Oversight Committee has provided multiple legitimate reasons why it seeks Trump’s financial records. As Courthouse News’ Adam Klasfeld reports, the committees seek to gauge the Trump business empire’s compliance with money laundering laws and to what extent foreign actors may have financial influence over the president. It is considering legislation to tighten these laws and close loopholes that the Trumps may have exploited. To determine “whether reforms are necessary to address deficiencies with current laws, rules, and regulations,” the House says it needs these records. That claim provides a legitimate legislative purpose, one that, according to precedent, the judiciary has no power to second-guess.

Because the Trumps are unlikely to prevail on the merits and “have not raised any serious questions” of law, Ramos concluded, the subpoenas should not be enjoined as Trump was requesting. The president’s attorneys plan to appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. They are currently appealing Mehta’s order—which involves a subpoena for Trump’s financial records at Mazars USA, his former accounting firm—to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. If neither appeals court stays these rulings, and the Supreme Court declines to intervene, the House will soon obtain a trove of the Trump family’s financial materials.

Deutsche Bank seemed to indicate it would comply with any final court rulings that the subpoenas were lawful. “We remain committed to providing appropriate information to all authorized investigations and will abide by a court order regarding such investigations,” said Kerrie McHugh, a Deutsche Bank spokeswoman.

It is easy to see why the president is so desperate to conceal these records; the New York Times reported on Sunday that anti-money-laundering specialists at Deutsche Bank proposed flagging Trump’s account for suspicious activity, though bank managers overruled them. The odds of a Trump victory over the House, however, are extremely low, even at this conservative Supreme Court. In order to rule in his favor, the justices would have to ignore Congress’ sweeping constitutional power to investigate and overturn decades of precedent. They’d also have to look beyond the House’s stated justifications to uncover some impermissible motive. A majority court refused to engage in such scrutiny when evaluating Trump’s own policies, such as his travel ban, even in the face of significant public evidence of unlawful motives; it would be odd if the conservative justices applied a more stringent standard to the (Democratic) House.

The sad truth for Trump is that his legal theory here never made any sense. Even if the House Financial Services and Intelligence Committees do have a flagrantly partisan purpose, the Constitution strictly limits courts’ ability to block a facially legitimate congressional subpoena. Elections have consequences, and Democrats’ control over the House probably ensures that the president’s long-concealed financial records will finally see the light of day.