A Federal Judge Destroyed Trump’s Argument on Stonewalling

The House Oversight Committee, chaired by Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), issued a subpoena to Trump’s accounting firm Mazars for the president’s financial records based primarily on Michael Cohen’s testimony that the president fraudulently deflated and inflated the value of his assets to benefit himself and his businesses. Trump responded by suing to stop Mazars from complying. The case was heard last Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta and on Monday, the judge denied a request from the president’s personal attorneys to halt the enforcement of the subpoena.

This poses the first loss by Trump and his lawyers in their attempt to stonewall congress on every front when it comes to investigations. In his 41-page ruling, Mehta took a decisive blow to the foundational arguments they are making.

Last Wednesday, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote a letter to House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler denying documents and testimony that had been requested by his committee as part of their investigation. As I noted, the first few pages of the letter were devoted to claims that the president had taken steps to cooperate with congressional requests. That is because both sides are very well aware of the fact that the courts will eventually decide these matters and will be reluctant to rule in favor of the party that has not done everything in their power to be accommodating.

But in denying the Judiciary Committee’s requests, Cipollone took the unprecedented position of challenging congress’s standing to investigate Trump at all.

The letter repeatedly states that “the requests run afoul of the Constitution by encroaching upon authorities that the Constitution assigns exclusively to the Executive Branch.” Cipollone further states that “the Committee’s inquiries must be tied to a valid legislative purpose—that is, they must be tied to evaluating or formulating potential legislation on some subject within the Committee’s authority.”

Those are the same arguments Trump’s lawyers made to stop congress from getting access to the president’s financial records.

Mr. Trump’s legal team, led by William S. Consovoy, had argued that the House Committee on Oversight and Reform had no legitimate legislative purpose in seeking Mr. Trump’s financial records and was just trying to dig up dirt — like finding out whether the president broke any laws — for political reasons, so the subpoena exceeded its constitutional authority.

Judge Mehta systematically destroyed them all.

“Congress’s motives are off limits,” so long as the focus of the probe stays within the body’s broad remit to investigate. “…Mehta adds that Congress does not need to begin moving towards impeachment before opening an investigation into the president.

“It is simply not fathomable that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a President for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct—past or present—even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry,” he writes. “This court is not prepared to roll back the tide of history.”

At times, Mehta’s attitude toward Trump’s argument bleeds through the text. In one footnote, he calls an argument by Trump’s attorney that Congress can only investigate government “agencies” and therefore not the president “artificial line-drawing,” and says that argument “is antithetical to the checks and balances inherent in the Constitution’s design.”

Mehta also denied a request by Trump’s lawyers to stay his decision pending an appeal.

The judge said that the Mr. Trump’s legal arguments were too thin to merit a stay because they did not raise a “serious legal question,” and said that issuing such a stay would amount to interfering with the constitutional powers of Congress.

“The court is well aware that this case involves records concerning the private and business affairs of the president of the United States,” he wrote. “But on the question of whether to grant a stay pending appeal, the president is subject to the same legal standard as any other litigant that does not prevail.”

Mazars now has seven days to comply with the subpoena. However, Trump’s lawyers have already filed an appeal to the D.C. Circuit Court, where none other than Merrick Garland serves as the Chief Justice. They’ll need a stay from the appeals court in the next few days, or Mazars will be obliged to comply by next week.

While rulings by district judges don’t set legal precedent, as the first federal judge to weigh in on the arguments made by Trump’s legal team, Judge Mehti’s opinion will carry some weight in the courts. A federal judge in Manhattan is set to hear a case on Wednesday regarding a subpoena from the House Financial Services Committee seeking Trump’s bank records from Deutsche Bank AG and Capital One. Democrats have already flagged Mehti’s ruling to that judge.

Of course, these cases are likely to ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court. In responding to Judge Mehti’s ruling, Trump once again opened his mouth to insert his foot.

Trump called the 41-page ruling from U.S. District Judge Amit P. Mehta of the District of Columbia “crazy” and said he would appeal, adding: “We think it’s totally the wrong decision by, obviously, an Obama-appointed judge.”

Calling the ruling of a federal judge “crazy” is one thing. But you might remember that the one and only time Chief Justice John Roberts has spoken out about Trump was when the president criticized a ruling by an “Obama judge.” Roberts shot back.

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges,” Roberts said in a statement. “What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.”

Trump couldn’t let it go. Later that afternoon, he took to Twitter to rebuke the Chief Justice.

Triggering that exchange was not a smart play for someone whose fate is likely to rest with Chief Justice Roberts. But then, no one has ever accused this president of being smart.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.