A constitutional clash between the executive authority of the president and the subpoena powers of Congress is now unfolding before the U.S. Supreme Court. The outcome of the case may reverberate long after Donald Trump has vacated the White House.
At issue in Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP, is whether the Committee on Oversight and Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives overstepped its legal and constitutional authority in 2019 when it subpoenaed Mazars USA, Trump's longtime accounting firm, demanding eight years of financial records pertaining to Trump and several of his business entities.
This is not the first time that the Supreme Court has been asked to review the scope of such congressional power. In Barenblatt v. United States (1959), the Court ruled that "Congress may only investigate into those areas in which it may potentially legislate or appropriate." In Eastland v. U.S. Servicemen's Fund (1975), the Court reaffirmed that basic principle, holding that the congressional subpoena power may only be used for a "legitimate legislative purpose."
The central question in Trump v. Mazars USA is whether the House Oversight Committee has a "legitimate legislative purpose" in seeking Trump's financial records.
The House Oversight Committee insists that it does. "The Committee's interests in these matters," wrote then-chairman Elijah Cummings (D–Md.) in an April 2019 memorandum, "informs its review of multiple laws and legislative proposals under [its] jurisdiction." For example, if Trump's financial records reveal that he is violating federal ethics laws while in office, then the committee may use that information to help fashion new laws that better target such presidential wrongdoing.
The committee spelled out this argument in greater detail in its brief urging the Supreme Court to deny Trump's petition to grant review of the case. "The election of a President who has decided to maintain his ties to a broad array of business ventures raises questions about the adequacy of existing legislation concerning financial disclosures, government contracts with federal officeholders, and government ethics, more generally," the committee's brief states. "Whether new legislation on these subjects is needed is a natural subject of Congressional inquiry."
Trump's legal team counters by dismissing that argument as a mere pretext for an illegal fishing expedition by the president's political foes. Under the committee's theory, the Trump legal team told the Supreme Court in a brief filed this week, "a congressional committee merely needs to say that it is considering legislation requiring presidents to disclose information of this type. Given the temptation to investigate the personal lives of political rivals, legislative subpoenas targeting the private affairs of presidents will become routine in times of divided government."
In other words, Trump's argument goes, the House subpoena should be squashed in this case not to protect Trump personally but to protect the office of the presidency in general.
Oral arguments in Trump v. Mazars USA are scheduled for March 31.