Federal courts 2, President Trump 0.
That’s the scoreboard this week in cases in which Trump has tried for specious, frivolous reasons to prevent the House from obtaining his financial records. On Monday, Judge Amit J. Mehta ruled that Trump could not block documents from the accounting firm Mazars USA. On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos in the Southern District of New York slapped down Trump’s attempt to block the House from obtaining records from Deutsche Bank and Capital One.
Ramos not only denied Trump’s motion for injunctive relief but also held, “The court concludes that the plaintiffs have not raised any serious questions.” That’s lawyer-speak for “Get out of my courtroom!” Ramos blasted the entire theory that Congress lacks investigative powers or that it’s up to Trump to decide whether a proper purpose is served by the subpoena. Reports from inside the courtroom quoted Ramos as saying, “Courts have long recognized a clear public interest in maximizing Congress’s power to investigate. ... Propriety of legislative motives is not a question left to the courts.”
What is even more encouraging is that Ramos emphasized the urgency of the matter and the need to proceed expeditiously so that Congress could proceed with investigations.
Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe tells me: “Like the ruling by Judge Mehta, the ruling by Judge Ramos was clearly right under fully settled law and in my view is quite certain to be upheld on appeal. The extreme rapidity of today’s decision reflects the simple fact that the arguments by Trump’s lawyers in both cases were, to be blunt, entirely insubstantial.” Tribe adds that had Ramos ruled as Trump wanted, Ramos would have been forced to “toss out over a century and a third of Supreme Court precedent requiring federal judges to take Congress’s explanations of its need for information at face value when those explanations are facially plausible, as they certainly were in the Deutsche Bank case as well as in the Mazars case.”
The decision, like Mehta’s ruling, will be appealed, but the two judges made clear that Trump’s claims weren’t even close to legitimate. Trump isn’t raising reasonable objections; he’s tossing out crackpot arguments to stop the House from getting information critical to its oversight. And contrary to the claims of those hawking impeachment as the only way to hold Trump accountable in a timely fashion, “this pair of swift and decisive defeats for the Trump strategy of concealing apparently troubling truths about the Trump family’s financial entanglements and their implications for the American people represents a crucial turning of the legal tide in the direction of badly needed transparency," Tribe argues.
These rulings also do not bode well for Trump’s attempt to refuse to release his tax returns from the IRS to the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, as the latter requested.
We are still left to ponder as to what is so damaging in Trump’s financial records that would prompt his attorneys’ legal gymnastics. “I can’t imagine anything other than this president’s extreme obsession with hiding his and his family’s tangled web of financial dealings — quite plausibly including the illegal laundering of bloodstained proceeds from Russian and Saudi criminal enterprises — that could make Trump desperate enough to mount a legally frivolous attack on the very heart of Congress’s investigative power, a power as old as the republic itself and vital to democracy’s survival,” says Tribe. “It’s as though no argument is too outlandish and unfathomable, to use Judge Mehta’s term, for Trump to have his legal mouthpieces trot it out in the desperate hope that one argument or another will somehow stick.”
Trump’s back-to-back defeats accomplish several things, in addition to providing (subject to appeal) Congress with its subpoenaed documents: They increase Democratic members’ confidence that House chairmen are making progress; they strengthen the hand of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) in holding back calls for impeachment; and they rattle Trump and congressional Republicans, who should have figured out by now that they are fighting a losing battle to destroy Congress’s oversight authority.
“This shows that the system is working. Trump and his allies can make all the frivolous legal arguments they want for public relations and to stall,” observes former prosecutor Mimi Rocah. “But in courts - where facts and law still matter it doesn’t work and the facts will come out.”
One wonders what Trump will do when he loses his appeals and must allow Congress access to his finances, including his tax returns. Will he defy a court order? Storm out of the White House and threaten never to return? (If only!) We very likely will get to find out.