House claims broad power in legal fight over Trump records

House Oversight and Reform Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, speaks and ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, figured into the arguments a federal judge heard over the committee's investigative prerogatives of President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

An attorney for the House described a sweeping congressional power to subpoena information Tuesday during a court hearing in Washington, as a federal judge appeared unlikely to block lawmakers from getting eight years of President Donald Trump’s financial records from an accounting firm.

The hearing was the first showdown over Trump’s efforts to stonewall investigations by House Democrats, including his lawsuit that argues the House Oversight and Reform Committee lacks a legitimate legislative purpose to force Mazars USA to turn over records.

The arguments made clear that the legal fight will continue to higher courts, no matter how U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta rules.

House General Counsel Douglas N. Letter told Mehta, among other arguments, that the appropriations power gives Congress that legitimate legislative purpose for investigations into the president and the full breadth of the government.

“Appropriations money just covers virtually everything the government does,” Letter said.

And when Mehta asked Letter if there were any limits to what Congress could subpoena about the president, Letter provided two hypotheticals: the president’s blood for a blood test, or the president’s diary from when he was 7 years old.

“Fortunately for the House, we’re nowhere close to that,” Letter said.

An attorney for Trump, William Consovoy, told Mehta that statements by Chairman Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland made it clear that the committee subpoena was not seeking the information for legislation, but to enforce criminal laws based on information from former Trump attorney Michael Cohen about the president’s business.

“This is about the House being dissatisfied with the president” and using its power to uncover anything they can about what Trump might have done wrong, Consovoy said.

Any legislation that could arise out of the Mazars subpoena would not be constitutional, Consovoy said.

Mehta appeared skeptical of that argument and said he “cannot imagine” he is supposed to write an opinion that knocks down three or four avenues Congress could take, including the lawmakers’ role in enforcing the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution that requires a president get congressional approval before accepting payments or gifts from foreign governments.

But Mehta said Cummings’ statements that the committee has authority to investigate whether Trump may have engaged in illegal conduct even before his tenure in office “really does open the door” to arguments they want to get into his affairs for political purposes.

Letter told the judge that in requesting Trump’s financial records, the House needs to pursue allegations the president committed illegal acts in his businesses and whether another country might know that and use that to their advantage.

“We need to know if the president of the United States is beholden to foreign interests who can hold things over his head,” Letter said. “Congress is not trying to send President Trump to jail, we’re not prosecuting anybody.”

And Letter said he could not assure the judge the documents wouldn’t be public, since Congress has the power to determine whether to disclose records. “We cannot pledge these will be kept secret,” Letter said.

Mehta rejected Trump’s argument that there needs to be more court proceedings before he ruled, telling the lawyers that this is a matter of law and “we’re not going to drag this out.”

But the judge gave his attorney until Friday to submit any other evidence he wanted, such as information from committee ranking member Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, but said he wasn’t going to allow the lengthy discovery process.

“You don’t need the instruments of the court to get something from Congressman Jordan,” Mehta told Consovoy.

The case is Trump et al. v. House Oversight and Reform Committee, Docket No. 19-1136.

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