- The Washington Times - Monday, May 20, 2019

House Democrats won their first court victory Monday in their battle to pry loose documents from President Trump after a judge ruled one of his accounting firms must comply with a congressional subpoena seeking some of Mr. Trump’s personal financial documents.

Judge Amit P. Mehta rejected Mr. Trump’s argument that the House Oversight Committee’s investigation was illegitimate, saying Congress has wide latitude to decide what’s worthy of investigation.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, set up another likely legal battle by ordering former White House lawyer Don McGahn not to appear for scheduled congressional testimony Tuesday.

The White House, armed with a Justice Department opinion, said Congress has never been able to compel a close aide to a president to testify, and this case is no different.

“I think it’s a very important precedent,” Mr. Trump said, portraying the move as less about his own needs and more about protecting the institution of the White House from Congressional encroachment.

Mr. Trump’s move orders Mr. McGahn to defy a subpoena issued last month by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who said he wants to hear how the former White House lawyer dealt with Mr. Trump’s reported efforts to have special counsel Robert Mueller fired.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, who took over after Mr. McGahn left the job, says everything Mr. McGahn did is protected from disclosure by the president’s privilege to obtain advice from his close advisors without worrying about interrogation by political adversaries on Capitol Hill.

“The Department of Justice … has advised me that Mr. McGahn is absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony with respect to matters occurring during his service as a senior advisor to the president,” Mr. Cipollone wrote to Mr. Nadler.

And because Mr. McGahn’s work for the White House is exempt, he cannot be held in contempt of Congress for refusing to comply, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said.

Mr. Nadler said Tuesday’s hearing will go on, and he wants Mr. McGahn to defy Mr. Trump and show up anyway.

The congressman also said Mr. Trump’s move to block his former lawyer is a sign that the president is hiding things.

“He clearly does not want the American people to hear first-hand about his alleged misconduct, and so he has attempted to block Mr. McGahn from speaking in public tomorrow,” Mr. Nadler said.

He described the president’s assertion of constitutional immunity as an “act of obstruction.”

Mr. Nadler earlier this month said the president’s attempts to thwart his investigations amounted to the beginnings of a case for impeachment — and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has sounded a similar theme, pointing out that President Nixon resigned in the face of articles of impeachment that cited obstruction of Congress as one of the causes.

If they were to pursue impeachment, Democrats would be guaranteed broader rein to pursue their investigations of the president, including access to grand jury materials from the Mueller report and perhaps his financial records.

Since impeachment is a judicial proceeding, it cuts through some restrictions.

But Democrats say they believe they’re entitled the information even without pursuing impeachment, and Judge Mehta’s ruling is a major boost to those efforts.

Judge Mehta, appointed by President Obama to the federal district court in Washington, D.C., ruled against Mr. Trump’s efforts to block a House Oversight Committee subpoena for documents from one of his accounting firms, Mazars USA LLP.

Democrats went after the documents after hearing testimony from Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer for years, who said Mr. Trump routinely manipulated the value of his assets and liabilities on financial statements, depending on what his goals were. For example, Cohen said, he would inflate estimates to obtain loans, but would deflate assets’ value to calculate real estate taxes.

Mr. Trump’s team said the Oversight Committee’s probe was illegitimate because it didn’t serve a valid legislative purpose. Under longstanding court precedent, Congress has broad investigative powers but they aren’t unlimited, and must be tethered to Congress’s ability to write laws.

The Oversight Committee said it wants to look at the records so it can see if financial disclosure and ethics laws are working.

Judge Mehta said that’s good enough.

“To be sure, there are limits on Congress’s investigative authority. But those limits do not substantially constrain Congress,” he wrote. “So long as Congress investigates on a subject matter on which ‘legislation could be had,’ Congress acts as contemplated by Article I of the Constitution.”

He said it’s not his job to peer behind Congress’s stated motives to look for political intentions.

His ruling, if it stands, would be a severe blow to Mr. Trump’s broad campaign of obstruction.

One example is the president’s tax returns. The IRS is refusing to turn them over, claiming the Ways and Means Committee’s investigation is political and lacks a “legitimate” legislative purpose.

Mr. Trump called the ruling “crazy,” and tried to minimize the decision, citing Judge Mehta’s history as an “Obama-appointed judge.”

“We’ll appeal it,” he told reporters.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide