DOJ: Congress must meet high bar for Trump tax information

Cases set for March 31 oral argument

The Supreme Court building at sunset on Nov. 14, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Supreme Court building at sunset on Nov. 14, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted February 4, 2020 at 2:07pm

The Justice Department on Monday night backed President Donald Trump in the Supreme Court fight over congressional subpoenas for his financial documents, telling the justices that lawmakers must meet a higher bar when seeking a sitting president’s personal records.

The cases, set for March 31 oral argument, center on subpoenas from three House committees to accounting firm Mazars USA, Deutsche Bank and Capital One Financial Corp. House Democrats are seeking eight years of Trump’s financial and tax records.

Trump filed lawsuits to challenge the subpoenas in his personal capacity, and a Supreme Court decision expected by the end of the term at the end of June could reshape the limits for impeachment and other oversight investigations into a sitting president.

The Trump administration weighed in Monday to argue that the subpoenas are unconstitutional because the House did not make enough of a showing of the need for the information for a “legitimate legislative purpose.”

[House urges Supreme Court to enforce subpoenas for Trump’s financial records]

The DOJ argues that the cases involve the first attempts by congressional committees to demand a president’s personal records, and the subpoenas pose “a serious risk of harassing the President and distracting him from his constitutional duties.”

The Justice Department lays out in the brief what it sees as the heightened requirements when Congress seeks information from the president and argues that the House committees did not meet them.

That includes that the full chamber should “unequivocally authorize a subpoena,” the legislative purpose should be “set forth with specificity,” courts should scrutinize that purpose “with care” instead of presuming, and the information sought should be “demonstrably critical to the legitimate legislative purpose.”

“The four reasons offered in support of the Mazars subpoena betray an impermissible law-enforcement objective, and the boilerplate statement that the subpoena furthers ‘multiple laws and legislative proposals’ is far too vague to enable, much less withstand, meaningful scrutiny of its legitimacy,” the Justice Department wrote.

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Trump’s personal lawyers also have argued that the committees did not have a legitimate legislative purpose to seek the records from before and after Trump took office.

In the case with Mazars, the House Oversight and Reform Committee has argued it has legitimate interests in investigating the accuracy of Trump’s financial disclosures and the lease of the Old Post Office Building as the site of the Trump International Hotel, as well as possible violations of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution by accepting payments from foreign governments.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, sided with the House and ruled that Mazars must comply with the April 15 subpoena.

In the other case, the House Financial Services and Intelligence committees argued they need subpoenas to Deutsche Bank and Capital One to pass and implement legislative changes to secure the nation’s 2020 elections from foreign influence.

A decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit would allow enforcement of those congressional subpoenas for financial records of Trump and his businesses.

The cases are Trump et al. v. Mazars USA et al., Docket No. 19-715, and Trump et al. v. Deutsche Bank et al., Docket No. 19-760.