The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
This afternoon, Judge Amit Mehta of the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia rejected President Donald Trump's attempt to block a congressional subpoena seeking financial records from Trump's accountants.
Here is the introduction to Judge Mehta's opinion in Trump v. Committee on Oversight and Reform:
I do, therefore, . . . solemnly protest against these proceedings of the House of Representatives, because they are in violation of the rights of the coordinate executive branch of the Government, and subversive of its constitutional independence; because they are calculated to foster a band of interested parasites and informers, ever ready, for their own advantage, to swear before ex parte committees to pretended private conversations between the President and themselves, incapable, from their nature, of being disproved; thus furnishing material for harassing him, degrading him in the eyes of the country . . .
- President James Buchanan
These words, written by President James Buchanan in March 1860, protested a resolution adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives to form a committee—known as the Covode Committee—to investigate whether the President or any other officer of the Executive Branch had sought to influence the actions of Congress by improper means. . . . Buchanan "cheerfully admitted" that the House of Representatives had the authority to make inquiries "incident to their legislative duties," as "necessary to enable them to discover and to provide the appropriate legislative remedies for any abuses which may be ascertained." But he objected to the Covode Committee's investigation of his conduct. He maintained that the House of Representatives possessed no general powers to investigate him, except when sitting as an impeaching body. Buchanan feared that, if the House were to exercise such authority, it "would establish a precedent dangerous and embarrassing to all my successors, to whatever
political party they might be attached."
Some 160 years later, President Donald J. Trump has taken up the fight of his predecessor. On April 15, 2019, the Committee on Oversight and Reform of the House of Representatives issued a subpoena for records to Mazars USA LLP, a firm that has provided accounting services to President Trump. The subpoena called for Mazars to produce financial records and other documents relating to President Trump personally as well as various associated businesses and entities dating back to 2011—years before he declared his candidacy for office. The decision to issue the subpoena came about after the President's former lawyer and confidant, Michael Cohen, testified before the House Oversight Committee that the President routinely would alter the estimated value of his assets and liabilities on financial statements, depending on the purpose for which a statement was needed. For instance, Cohen said that the President provided inflated financial statements to a bank to obtain a loan to purchase a National Football League franchise. But when it came time to calculate his real estate taxes, the President would deflate the value of certain assets. To support his accusations, Cohen produced financial statements from 2011, 2012, and 2013, at least two of which were prepared by Mazars.
Echoing the protests of President Buchanan, President Trump and his associated entities are before this court, claiming that the Oversight Committee's subpoena to Mazars exceeds the Committee's constitutional power to conduct investigations. The President argues that there is no legislative purpose for the subpoena. The Oversight Committee's true motive, the President insists, is to collect personal information about him solely for political advantage. He asks the court to declare the Mazars subpoena invalid and unenforceable.
Courts have grappled for more than a century with the question of the scope of Congress's investigative power. The binding principle that emerges from these judicial decisions is that courts must presume Congress is acting in furtherance of its constitutional responsibility to legislate and must defer to congressional judgments about what Congress needs to carry out that purpose. To be sure, there are limits on Congress's investigative authority. But those limits do not substantially constrain Congress. So long as Congress investigates on a subject matter on which "legislation could be had," Congress acts as contemplated by Article I of the Constitution.
Applying those principles here compels the conclusion that President Trump cannot block the subpoena to Mazars. According to the Oversight Committee, it believes that the requested records will aid its consideration of strengthening ethics and disclosure laws, as well as amending the penalties for violating such laws. The Committee also says that the records will assist in monitoring the President's compliance with the Foreign Emoluments Clauses. These are facially valid legislative purposes, and it is not for the court to question whether the Committee's actions are truly motivated by political considerations. Accordingly, the court will enter judgment in favor of the Oversight Committee.
No doubt this opinion will be appealed. Trump's attorneys may succeed in obtaining a stay, or otherwise slowing down these proceedings, but I expect they will ultimately be unsuccessful.
Assuming Congress must be able to identify a legitimate legislative purpose when seeking such information, Judge Mehta is correct to conclude that that any such requirement is amply satisfied here. The President is not a private individual. His financial information is relevant to the legislature's authority to determine whether foreign emoluments are to be permitted and under what conditions, as well as to whether presidential conduct implicates his oath of office or could justify an impeachment inquiry. Whether or not relevant legislation has been introduced or a formal impeachment inquiry has been opened is irrelevant, as Congress is not required to introduce legislation before investigating whether any such legislation is desirable, nor is Congress required to open a formal impeachment proceeding before looking into whether such a proceeding would be justified, and it would be a stark departure from traditional separation of powers norms for a court to conclude otherwise.