A panel of two judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Friday ruled that Congress can obtain some, but not all, of the documents a committee subpoenaed from former president Donald Trump’s accountants.
The House Oversight Committee subpoenaed Mazars, Trump’s accounting firm, in 2019. The Committee described its probe as one of “several investigations” in Trump’s potential “conflicts of interest, inadequate financial disclosures, and violations of the Emoluments Clauses.” The goal, the Committee reasserted on Friday, was “to determine the adequacy of existing laws and perform related agency oversight.”
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney and “fixer,” testified before the Committee on Feb. 27, 2019, and alleged that Trump “inflated his total assets when it served his purposes” and “deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes.” Cohen provided some documents from 2011, 2012, and 2013 which the Committee said “raised questions about President Trump’s representations on these forms and other financial disclosure documents, particularly relating to the President’s debts.”
Then-Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings next asked Mazars via a March 20, 2019 letter for some of Trump’s financial documents; a formal subpoena followed on April 15, 2019. Trump and his businesses sued on May 20, 2019, to block Mazars from handing over the requested material.
The initial round of litigation landed eventually in the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court, via a July 9, 2020 majority opinion penned by Chief Justice John Roberts, set forth a new test that attempted to navigate the “significant separation of powers issues raised by congressional subpoenas for the President’s information.” The majority held that Congressional subpoenas were “not sufficiently powerful to justify access to the President’s personal papers when other sources could provide Congress the information it needs.” The Supreme Court also said subpoenas of presidential material needed to be “narrow” in scope — “no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress’s legislative objective.” The high Court further said that subpoenas needed to take into account the “burdens imposed” on the president by forced compliance.
Associate justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh rounded out the majority in the 2020 case; Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito filed a dissent.
Despite the Court-imposed limits, the Committee touted that the justices “reaffirmed the bedrock principle in our democracy that no one — not even the President — is above the law.”
The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower courts to hash out the details.
The next round of litigation resulted in Friday’s decision by the D.C. Circuit. A three-judge panel ruled that the Committee could obtain some, but not all, of the documents it wanted. The Committee summarized the ruling this way:
The Court held that former “President Trump’s financial information would advance the Committee’s consideration of ethics reform legislation across all three of its investigative tracks,” including presidential ethics and conflicts of interest, presidential financial disclosures, and presidential adherence to Constitutional safeguards against foreign interference and undue influence.
Appellate judge Sri Srinivasan (a Barack Obama appointee) wrote the circuit court’s opinion; Judith W. Rogers (a Bill Clinton appointee) concurred. Then-circuit judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, who has since been elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court, participated in the usual three-judge panel that heard the case; however, she did not participate in the final decision.
After explaining the task laid out by the U.S. Supreme Court, the D.C. Circuit held that the Committee could legally obtain the following:
In light of the required narrowing of the Committee’s subpoena as enumerated above, we hold that the Committee’s legislative aims under its three investigative tracks, considered in combination, justify production of only the following subset of information encompassed by its subpoena: accounting records, source documents, and engagement letters from 2014–2018 that reference, indicate, or discuss any undisclosed, false, or otherwise inaccurate information about President Trump’s or a Trump entity’s reported assets, liabilities, or income; associated communications from 2014–2018 related to potential concerns that information provided was incomplete, inaccurate, or otherwise unsatisfactory; all requested documents from November 2016–2018 belonging to Trump Old Post Office LLC; all documents from November 2016–2018 referencing, indicating, discussing, or otherwise relating to, the Old Post Office lease; and all documents from 2017–2018 related to financial relationships, transactions, or ties between President Trump or a Trump entity and any foreign state or foreign state agency, the United States, any federal agency, any state or any state agency, or an individual government official.
As substantially narrowed in that fashion, we conclude that the Mazars subpoena is “no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress’s legislative objective[s]” across the Committee’s three investigative tracks.
The circuit judges also noted:
Since the time of the Supreme Court’s remand, there have been two developments that potentially affect the shape of our inquiry into the subpoena’s validity. First, President Trump is no longer the sitting President. And second, the Committee’s chairwoman has prepared a detailed explanation of the legislative purposes the subpoena serves and of how the subpoena satisfies the test laid out by the Supreme Court.
That changed the calculus in part, but not in whole: “we uphold the Committee’s authority to subpoena certain of President Trump’s financial records in furtherance of the Committee’s enumerated legislative purposes,” the appellate judges ruled. “But we cannot sustain the breadth of the Committee’s subpoena.”
The appellate court also explained why it believed Congress had sufficiently articulated its need for at least some of the material:
President Trump has uniquely pertinent information that cannot reasonably be obtained from any other source. And the legislation under consideration (along all three investigative tracks) is President-specific targeting presidential disclosures and conflicts of interest—rather than general. In those circumstances, the Committee has shown that its emoluments-related legislative purposes warrant involving President Trump’s papers.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y. 12), the current chairwoman of the Committee, reacted to the court’s decision with the following:
Former President Donald Trump displayed an unprecedented disregard for federal ethics and financial transparency. Today’s decision affirmed Congress’s broad constitutional authority to conduct investigations, even when those investigations involve wrongdoing by the President. The court ruled that the Oversight Committee has valid legislative purposes to investigate former President Trump’s flagrant conflicts of interest, self-dealing, and constitutional violations.
While it is disappointing that the court narrowed the subpoena in some respects, I am pleased the court upheld key parts of the Committee’s subpoena, affirmed our authority to obtain documents from Mazars, and rejected former President Trump’s spurious arguments that Congress cannot investigate his financial misconduct. We are considering next steps in this litigation, and my Committee is determined to fulfill our responsibilities under the Constitution to provide robust oversight and prevent corruption and self-dealing at the highest level of our government.
Reuters reported on Friday that both a “lawyer for Trump and a Mazars spokesperson did not immediately respond to requests for comment.”
Read the D.C. Circuit Court’s full opinion below:
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