Congressional Democrats have issued subpoenas to the Trump Organization and other Trump businesses tied to a lawsuit accusing President Donald Trump of profiting from foreign governments in violation of the Constitution, but the Justice Department is now asking an appeals court to step in and block the move.
Democrats sent more than three-dozen subpoenas, demanding a response by July 29, seeking to collect evidence about the President’s financial records, after a federal judge ruled last month that Democrats could proceed with the legal discovery process in their lawsuit.
But the Justice Department, defending Trump in his presidential capacity, has requested that an appeals court Monday overrule the lower court’s decision and prevent the subpoenas from going forward. If the Democratic members of Congress collected evidence in the emoluments lawsuit, DOJ wrote, Trump “is likely to suffer irreparable injury” because of “intrusive discovery into his personal finances based on the public office he holds.”
The escalating court fight represents a new front in Democrats’ quest to obtain the President’s financial records, a battle that’s now playing out across multiple congressional committees and judicial jurisdictions.
The new subpoenas come from the Constitutional Accountability Center, which is representing a group of House and Senate Democrats led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and House Judiciary Chairman Jerry Nadler of New York, who are alleging Trump is violating the emoluments clause of the Constitution.
The judge overseeing the suit, Emmet Sullivan of the US District Court in Washington, gave the Democrats permission to subpoena the documents and take depositions beginning June 28.
The Justice Department asked in its filing Monday for the DC Circuit Court of Appeals to hear their case before Sullivan finishes resolving it at the trial level. The department says Sullivan was wrong in his interpretation of congressional power and the constitutional clause that prohibits officials from receiving benefits from foreign powers.
Sullivan previously told the Justice Department that it could not yet appeal his decisions that allowed the case to move forward into evidence-collection.
“If the district court’s clearly erroneous orders are allowed to stand, this improper suit will proceed and the Members will commence discovery aimed at probing the President’s personal financial affairs because he holds federal office,” the Justice Department wrote to the DC Circuit on Monday.
It’s an extraordinary step for the Justice Department to go around a lower court’s decision before a case is resolved. However, it’s not unheard of. The Justice Department used the same maneuver in another case about emoluments, before the federal court in Maryland. The Fourth Circuit, which looks at appeals from Maryland, has not yet decided that case.
The DC Circuit hasn’t yet decided what it will do.
The Democratic subpoenas seek the President’s companies’ tax returns and other financial information about Trump’s business assets. They also request information about three Trump towers in New York, the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, a San Francisco building, and the President’s Palm Beach club Mar-a-Lago.
Blumenthal said the subpoenas were intended to provide “information about foreign government payments accepted by six Trump properties, as well as trademarks granted to Trump businesses by foreign governments.”
“Unsurprisingly, the Trump Administration is still seeking to delay, delay, delay, but we are confident that the D.C. Circuit will recognize the well-reasoned logic of the District Court, and allow discovery to proceed,” Blumenthal said in a statement.
Democrats seek Trump finances through multiple channels
The emoluments lawsuit has plodded along in the federal court since 2017, but the judge’s decision on subpoenas gives Democrats a potential new avenue to obtain the President’s financial records. While it’s the earliest case where Democrats took the President to court, they now are also fighting Trump and his administration in additional court cases to obtain his tax returns and financial records from the Trump Organization’s banks and accounting firms.
The various cases may take several months – if not much longer – to be resolved. Democrats say they’re seeking the financial information to conduct oversight of the Trump administration, but if they do obtain the records they’re seeking, the documents could also provide them additional evidence beyond what was uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller should they decide to pursue an impeachment inquiry into the President.
Trump has repeatedly accused Democrats of “presidential harassment” in their efforts both to obtain his financial records and haul in his closest aides to testify. In this case, the Justice Department has argued in court that the Constitution’s emoluments provision doesn’t apply to Trump’s business situation, and that any evidence collection for the legal challenge would be too distracting for the President. In other court cases, Trump’s private legal team has argued that the Democrats’ subpoenas have no legislative purpose and invade his privacy.
Democrats could seek depositions
In the emoluments case, after Democrats won the key early phases in the lawsuit, they said they planned to seek depositions and documents related to how the Trump Organization may receive foreign governments’ benefits through intellectual property rights and other regulations and through payments to Trump’s hotel, golf, real estate and licensing holdings.
They also say they may send Trump himself “limited” written questions “to identify sources” in the evidence-gathering process.
They allege in the suit that Trump is breaking the law because the more than 200 members of Congress have not had the opportunity to review his business interests and approve any proceeds from foreign powers, as outlined in the Constitution.
Trump has refused to fully divest from his family’s corporate holdings, instead placing his assets in a trust while he is in office and turning over management of his companies to his sons. He also refuses to make public detailed information to verify his worth and income, such as his personal and corporate tax returns.
The other court cases are separate. Democrat-led House committees have subpoenaed Trump’s financial records from multiple entities that keep them. The House Ways and Means Committee sued last week to force the Treasury Department and IRS to turn over Trump’s tax returns from 2013 to 2018, citing the committee’s responsibility in examining the tax code and audit processes. The agency has refused to hand over the documents, leaning on a Justice Department opinion.
The House Oversight Committee subpoenaed Trump’s accounting firm Mazars USA for eight years of financial papers this spring, saying it needed them for its ethics investigation. And the House Intelligence and Financial Services committees requested Trump financial records from Capital One bank and Deutsche Bank as the committee examines foreign influence in politics and banking policy.
The accounting firm and bank subpoenas are held up in court, after Trump sued as a private citizen to stop them. Appeals courts are expected to weigh his arguments later this summer.