In ruling on Trump finances, court finds broad authority for impeachment inquiry

Legal analysis: The late Elijah Cummings, as chairman of the House Oversight Committee, had a valid reason for seeking the president's financial records, the judges said.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks to the media before departing the White House on Aug. 7, 2019.
President Donald Trump speaks to the media before departing the White House on Aug. 7, 2019.Andrew Harnik / AP file

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By Danny Cevallos

A federal appeals court ruled last week that President Donald Trump's accounting firm must turn over financial records requested by a House committee.

In April, the House Oversight and Reform Committee subpoenaed the firm, Mazars USA, for documents related to Trump's accounts going back to January 2009. His lawyers fought back with a lawsuit in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that argued Congress had no legitimate legislative purpose for getting the materials.

In a 2-1 ruling, a three-judge panel of the court disagreed but put a temporary hold on the legal effect of its decision to allow Trump's lawyers to appeal. A large part of the court’s opinion, which runs more than 100 pages, can be distilled into three questions: Is the Oversight Committee pursuing a legislative, as opposed to a law-enforcement, objective? Is the committee investigating a subject on which constitutional legislation could be enacted? And does the subpoena seek information relevant to the legislative inquiry?

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If the committee is pursuing only a crime-fighting objective, that could exceed its authority because such missions are exclusive to the executive and judicial branches. On the other hand, observers of congressional hearings have long known that the legislative purpose is not invalidated just because some criminal activity is unearthed during the process.

An April memorandum from Elijah Cummings, the longtime Baltimore congressman and chairman of the oversight panel who died on Thursday, identified four objectives of the subpoena: determine “whether the President may have engaged in illegal conduct before and during his tenure in office”; “whether [the President] has undisclosed conflicts of interest that may impair his ability to make impartial policy decisions”; “whether [the President] is complying with the Emoluments Clauses of the Constitution,” and “whether [the President] has accurately reported his finances to the Office of Government Ethics and other federal entities.”

To the court, this and other supporting documents provided strong evidence that the committee has a valid legislative purpose.

Trump's lawyers argued that the Oversight Committee's statements were disingenuous, concealing the panel's true — and improper — law enforcement purpose. They also contended that the first objective of the subpoena, to determine “whether the President … engaged … in illegal conduct," establishes that Congress is improperly engaging in law enforcement.

In response, the court pointed out that the committee has gone beyond just saying insincere but validating words. As long as the panel's stated purpose is buttressed by references to specific past or future problems, and those problems could be the subjects of appropriate legislation, then it is not for the court to say that Congress has exceeded its broad power.

As for the investigation into possible “illegal conduct" on the president's part, the court held that even a mere congressional interest in past crimes can qualify as a constitutional interest in remedial legislation. So broad is Congress' power that even an investigation into the prior bad conduct of a single person can be valid when the objective is to enact legislation to fix the problem, the court said.

The judges concluded that the Oversight Committee is, in fact, pursuing a legislative, non-law enforcement purpose, and that at least one kind of constitutional legislation could flow from the committee’s investigation. The court then determined that the documents requested by the panel are relevant to its investigation.

In doing so, the judges recognized that congressional investigators have no way to reliably determine before issuing a subpoena which documents will lead to relevant information. It is enough that the information sought is "reasonably relevant" to the committee’s legitimate legislative inquiry, the court said.