The Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that for now, Congress will not be able to get President Donald Trump’s financial records.
The 7-2 opinion in Trump v. Mazars USA, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, states that Congress has the power to subpoena the president’s financial records. However, the Supreme Court sent the case back to lower courts to reassess the matter with a new and narrower interpretation of Congress’ power to subpoena the chief executive’s records.
Minutes earlier, the court ruled in a 7-2 decision against the president in the case of Trump v. Vance, allowing the Manhattan district attorney to obtain Trump’s tax returns. It is unlikely to do so until after the election.
Following the rulings, Trump rambled semi-coherently on Twitter.
The Mazars case arose from investigations into Trump launched by multiple congressional committees after Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 midterm elections.
Even before he took office in January 2017, Trump’s election posed an unprecedented ethical problem. He was a self-proclaimed billionaire with vast real estate holdings and investments in countries around the world. He was the first president since Richard Nixon to refuse to disclose his tax returns to the public. And he planned to maintain ownership of all of his business holdings with the fig leaf of separation being that his two adult sons would run the business while he sat in the White House.
In the spring of 2019, three House committees issued subpoenas to Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars, and his lenders Deutsche Bank and Capital One as part of separate investigations into executive branch disclosure laws, international money laundering and the president’s potential undisclosed conflicts of interest.
Mazars, Deutsche Bank and Capital One all planned on complying with the subpoenas until Trump intervened in court to block them. To do so, he made a sweeping argument that Congress is not allowed to investigate the president, even for things that occurred before the president was sworn into office.
The president’s lawyers made two arguments in their objection to the congressional subpoenas. First, they claimed that Congress has no right to investigate the president at all outside of an impeachment inquiry and that the courts are not allowed to rule on disputes between the legislative and executive branches. The second, and more relevant argument for the Supreme Court’s decision, was that Congress’ subpoenas were issued solely for the purpose of embarrassing Trump and not for the investigatory reasons given ― the enforcement of disclosure laws and a probe of international money laundering. Congress cannot investigate the executive branch without a “legitimate legislative purpose,” and that none was offered here, his lawyers argued.
Prior Supreme Court precedents dating back to the Teapot Dome Scandal and running through McCarthy era witch hunts do indeed state that Congress needs a “legitimate legislative purpose” to investigate. However, those precedents also state that the courts will generally accept congressional claims about the purposes of its investigations without question. The courts said this was so because Congress’ “legitimate legislative purpose” need not be based on whether it could write legislation related to the investigatory subject matter or not.
Multiple district and appeals court decisions rejected Trump’s arguments while upholding existing court precedents related to Congress’ subpoena power.
Trump’s most sweeping argument, that Congress cannot investigate the president and the courts cannot adjudicate any inter-branch dispute, was one “that the Founders rejected at the inception of the Republic,” Judge Victor Marrero of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York ruled.
During Supreme Court arguments on May 12, justices focused on the question of whether the existing interpretation of Congress’ “legitimate legislative purpose” for issuing subpoenas was too broad. Conservative justices prodded House counsel Douglas Letter for a “limit” on what Congress could subpoena from a president as part of a legitimate investigation.
Roberts asked whether there was a “plausible example that you think is beyond any legislation that Congress would write.” Letter did not have an example.
“You were not able to give the chief justice even one example of a subpoena that would not be pertinent to some conceivable legislative purpose, were you?” Justice Samuel Alito said.
“That’s correct, because this court has said Congress’ power to legislate is extremely broad,” Letter replied.
In his opinion, Roberts wrote that the “House’s approach would leave essentially no limits on the congressional power to subpoena the President’s personal records.”
“A limitless subpoena power could transform the established practice of the political branches and allow Congress to aggrandize itself at the President’s expense,” the opinion reads. “These separation of powers concerns are unmistakably implicated by the subpoenas here, which represent not a run-of-the-mill legislative effort but rather a clash between rival branches of government over records of intense political interest for all involved.”