President Donald Trump and the Trump Organization have asked a U.S. judge to block a Congressional subpoena seeking business records from his longtime accounting firm Mazars USA LLP.
The subpoena is part of sweeping series of requests by Democratic lawmakers for financial records from the president’s company and Trump himself. Trump has refused to cooperate, and the April 22 lawsuit in Washington shifts what is certain to be an intense battle into the federal courts.
Trump’s personal lawyers said the House Oversight Committee is exceeding its authority by rummaging in his personal business records without a “legitimate legislative purpose.” Trump is suing in his individual capacity, and not as president.
“There is no possible legislation at the end of this tunnel,” Trump’s attorneys said in the complaint, accusing the committee led by Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings of assuming the investigatory powers of the U.S. Justice Department.
“Its goal is to expose plaintiffs’ private financial information for the sake of exposure, with the hope that it will turn up something that Democrats can use as a political tool against the president now and in the 2020 election,” the lawyers said.
Mazars is required to comply with the subpoena by noon on April 29.
“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,” Cummings said in a statement. “The president has a long history of trying to use baseless lawsuits to attack his adversaries.”
In a March 4 letter, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone also argued that lawmakers failed to establish a “legitimate legislative purpose” in rebuffing a request for White House records related to security-clearance procedures. Cipollone cited a pair of U.S. Supreme Court rulings to support his case.
House Democrats have also asked the U.S. Treasury Department to turn over the past six years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns and related documents. The department is reviewing that request.
Matt Dallek, a political historian at the George Washington University, said Trump’s lawsuit may be politically savvy but not likely to succeed given Congress’s power to oversee the executive branch.
“It’s a messaging document that doubles down on Trump’s notion that this is all a witch hunt,” Dallek said.
The president is following the standard practice of trying to delay and stall, said University of Virginia law professor Saikrishna Prakash.
“What’s different here is that Congress has subpoenaed a third party,” he said. “I think that’s what’s got them worried.“
President Richard Nixon sought to quash congressional subpoenas seeking tape recordings of Oval Office phone conversations, both Dallek and Prakash noted. But those were official government records and not privately held by a third party, the UVA professor said.
Cummings laid out his case for the committee’s authority to pursue the financial records from Mazars in an April 12 memo to House Oversight members.
“The committee has full authority to investigate whether the president may have engaged in illegal conduct before and during his tenure in office,” Cummings wrote. He said it’s also the committee’s job to determine whether Trump has undisclosed conflicts of interest, or is accepting gifts from foreign or other governments in violation of the Constitution.
“The committee’s interest in these matters informs its review of multiple laws and legislative proposals under our jurisdiction, and to suggest otherwise is both inaccurate and contrary to the core mission of the committee to serve as an independent check on the Executive Branch,” Cummings wrote.
Trump’s lawsuit comes less than a week after the public release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s partly redacted report on his two-year probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign.
Though the 448-page report detailed extensive contacts between Russians and people connected to Trump’s campaign, Mueller said facts uncovered during the investigation -- which also addressed the president’s pursuit of a Trump-branded tower in Moscow while campaigning -- didn’t establish a criminal conspiracy.
“The fact is Trump was seeking to do business in Russia,” Dallek said, adding that the president’s been implicated in potential campaign finance violation, his New York-based charity closed down due to allegations of illegal activity and he’s been accused of profiting from foreign governments through his Washington hotel in violation of the constitution.
“There’s probably a half dozen instances where his private business concerns are connected directly or indirectly to his public responsibilities as president, Dallek said. “There are legitimate questions.“
The case is Trump v. Cummings, D.D.C., No. 19-cv-01136, complaint 4/22/19.
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(Updates with Cummings’s comment in seventh paragraph.)
With assistance from Joe Light, Billy House and Laura Davison
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