Donald Trump and his companies filed a federal lawsuit on Monday seeking to block a congressional subpoena for some of the president’s financial records, maintaining that House Democrats instead should be spending their time on passing legislation that the president likes.
The lawsuit — filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia by Trump and various Trump-owned companies — names House Committee on Oversight and Reform Chairman Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the committee’s chief investigative counsel Peter Kenny, and Mazars USA LLP, the longtime accounting firm for Trump and his myriad endeavors. It seeks “declaratory and injunctive relief” against a subpoena approved by the committee for Trump’s accounting records.
The filing has a familiar ring to anyone who has read Trump’s Twitter feed. “The Democrat [sic] Party, with its newfound control of the U.S. House of Representatives, has declared all-out political war against President Donald J. Trump. Subpoenas are their weapon of choice,” it begins.
Trump’s filing then asserts that Congress’ subpoenas are not legitimate, because House Democrats are focused on an agenda that is not what he would like:
Democrats are using their new control of congressional committees to investigate every aspect of President Trump’s personal finances, businesses, and even his family. Instead of working with the President to pass bipartisan legislation that would actually benefit Americans, House Democrats are singularly obsessed with finding something they can use to damage the President politically.
The filing asserts that Congress has the power only to legislate, and that investigations are legitimate “only insofar as they further some legislative purpose,” and that there is no legislation that could result from the subpoena.
In the 1990s, the Republican majority on the Senate Special Whitewater Committee used its subpoena power repeatedly in a massive investigation of a failed Arkansas land deal involving Bill and Hillary Clinton. Both parties have frequently done oversight of the executive branch, and used their subpoena power to do so.
George Yin, a professor of law at the University of Virginia, told ThinkProgress that it is rare for the judiciary to step in and block a congressional subpoena based on lack of a legitimate legislative purpose. “In 1880, the Court refused to enforce the Congressional subpoena because the investigation related — as the court interpreted it — to a purely private matter, the influence of a bankruptcy on a private company,” he said. “The Supreme Court looked at that and said, ‘We don’t see any legislative function, any new laws your thinking of creating that would be furthered, we can’t even imagine what you’d write.’ And because it was two private parties, there was no oversight function.”
But the Oversight Committee’s subpoenas for Trump’s accounting records were issued with a much different official rationale: “To determine whether he has undisclosed conflicts of interest that may impair his ability to make impartial policy decisions, to assess whether he is complying with the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution, and to review whether he has accurately reported his finances to the Office of Government Ethics and other federal entities.”
In a statement provided to ThinkProgress, Cummings wrote, “The President has a long history of trying to use baseless lawsuits to attack his adversaries, but there is simply no valid legal basis to interfere with this duly authorized subpoena from Congress. This complaint reads more like political talking points than a reasoned legal brief, and it contains a litany of inaccurate information. The White House is engaged in unprecedented stonewalling on all fronts, and they have refused to produce a single document or witness to the Oversight Committee during this entire year.”
Aaron Scherb, legislative affairs director for Common Cause, agreed. “I think, in fact, oversight is one of the key constitutional requirements of Congress,” he told ThinkProgress. “We’ve seen in previous congresses, a complete failure of oversight, failing to uphold constitutional responsibilities so it’s refreshing that the current House is fulfilling its constitutional duties. Never has there been in a president in his administration with so many financial conflicts of interest. ” He also noted there is a clear precedent for Congress examining past presidents’ financial ties.
After using his perch to issue many subpoenas during the Obama administration, in the last Congress, then-House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) was explicit about the fact that he had little interest in using his committee to do its job to examine issues with the Trump administration. “Somebody’ll do something stupid at some point, and we’ll be all over it,” he told The Atlantic in 2017, but admitted, “I think the people who voted for Donald Trump went into it with eyes wide open. Everybody knew he was rich, everybody knew he had lots of different entanglements … These other little intrigues about a wealthy family making money is a bit of a sideshow.”
House Democrats picked up 40 seats in the November midterm election and gained a majority, in part based on their promise to significantly expand congressional oversight of the Trump administration — and despite House Republicans warning that a change in party control would lead to oversight and subpoenas of Trump’s financial records. That argument did not convince the American voters in 2018, so now Trump will try his luck with the federal judiciary.