Accountants must give the House some of Trump’s financial data, a judge rules.

Aug 11, 2021
In The News

WASHINGTON — Former President Donald J. Trump’s accounting firm must give Congress his tax and other financial records from his time in the White House, and for a longer period about his lease of a government-owned building for a hotel, a judge ruled on Wednesday in a long-running legal fight over a House subpoena.

But in his 53-page opinion, the judge, Amit P. Mehta of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, also ruled that the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was not entitled to other financial records covering years before Mr. Trump took office. The panel had issued a broad request for records dating back to 2011.

“In the current polarized political climate, it is not difficult to imagine the incentives a Congress would have to threaten or influence a sitting president with a similarly robust subpoena, issued after he leaves office, in order to ‘aggrandize itself at the president’s expense,’” Judge Mehta wrote, citing a Supreme Court ruling last year.

He added, “In the court’s view, this not-insignificant risk to the institution of the presidency outweighs the committee’s incremental legislative need for the material subpoenaed” from the accountants.

The split decision means that either side, or both sides, may appeal Judge Mehta’s ruling, so the case may not be resolved anytime soon. But in one respect, the stakes have been lowered: The Manhattan district attorney’s office obtained similar records this year from Mr. Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, after the Supreme Court rejected Mr. Trump’s efforts to block their release.

The litigation grew out of Mr. Trump’s refusal, in a break with modern precedent, to make his tax returns public when he ran for president and once he was in office. After Democrats took over the House in 2019, the Oversight and Reform Committee issued a subpoena for the records from Mazars and separately requested copies of his tax returns from the Treasury Department.

But Mr. Trump vowed to stonewall all subpoenas from House Democrats, and his personal lawyers and the Trump-era Justice Department battled the efforts in court, appealing losses and essentially running out the clock on the exposure of his financial dealings to outside scrutiny before his loss in the 2020 election.

At an earlier stage of the case, Judge Mehta upheld the committee’s entire demand as a legitimate exercise of congressional oversight power, rejecting Mr. Trump’s argument that it should be ruled invalid as a politically motivated effort to harass him.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers appealed, and an appeals court in the District of Columbia upheld Judge Mehta’s ruling. But last year, the Supreme Court sent the case back for new analysis by lower courts, instructing them to put greater emphasis on whether Congress had a legitimate need for the materials it sought or was intruding on presidential prerogatives.

“This court previously allowed the committee’s demand for President Trump’s financial records to proceed without qualification,” Judge Mehta wrote. But “applying the greater scrutiny required” by the Supreme Court, he said, he “cannot now go so far.”

Judge Mehta split the records the committee has been seeking into three categories, granting some but rejecting others.

One category was financial data about the government’s leasing of the Old Post Office in Washington to Mr. Trump’s organization for a hotel in 2013. Noting that Mr. Trump chose not to divest from that lease when he became president, Judge Mehta ruled that Congress could see the information from both before Mr. Trump became president and while he was in office.

“The decision to bid for the lease was entirely voluntary, as was the decision to sign it and be bound by its terms. The same is true for President Trump’s choice not to divest his interests in the lease upon entering public office,” he wrote, adding, “A presidential candidate can choose not to contract with the federal government, or can divest his interests upon assuming office, and thereby avoid the accompanying scrutiny.”

The second category was data about Mr. Trump’s finances while he was in office. Judge Mehta ruled that the committee could see those records, too, accepting as persuasive the House’s claim that it needed to look at them as part of weighing whether existing rules to enforce the Constitution’s ban on presidents’ taking foreign “emoluments” while in office are sufficient.

But he rejected Congress’s right to broadly scrutinize Mr. Trump’s financial records for the years before he became a public official, citing the Supreme Court’s concerns and saying he was not persuaded that access to the documents was necessary for lawmakers’ stated rationale: weighing whether new candidate disclosure laws are needed.

A lawyer for Mr. Trump did not respond to a request for comment, including on whether his client would appeal the portion of the ruling that went against him.

The chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, Representative Carolyn Maloney, Democrat of New York, praised the part of the ruling that upheld portions of her panel’s subpoena.

“Former President Trump’s opaque financial dealings led to an unprecedented federal ethics crisis,” Ms. Maloney said in a statement. “Today’s district court opinion recognized that the Oversight Committee is entitled to a broad set of President Trump’s financial records as part of our critical investigation aimed at preventing presidential conflicts of interest, self-dealing and constitutional violations.”

She expressed disappointment in the portion of the ruling that narrowed what the committee could obtain but did not say whether it would appeal that part, saying only that it was “actively considering next steps.”