On Monday, a District of Columbia federal judge ruled that an accounting firm used by President Trump must hand over Trump’s financial records to a congressional committee that subpoenaed the records.

The judge is Amit P. Mehta. Trump called his ruling “crazy.” Perhaps if Trump were talking to the judge, he’d say: “Dammit, Amit, you’re crazy.”

For public consumption, Trump also said, “We think it’s totally the wrong decision by, obviously, an Obama-appointed judge.”

Attempts to politicize the judiciary are irksome but will probably increase by politicians and pundits on both sides of the widening political divide. Such ad hominem attacks should have no place in our discourse.

One of the first principles that students of logic learn is the weakness of ad hominem attacks. Attack the viewpoint, not the person holding it. Even despots and kooks can sometimes hold valid positions.

To imply that a judge couldn’t make a valid decision because of which president appointed him is an ad hominem move: President Obama appointed Mehta, so obviously Mehta’s decision on this politically charged question will be wrong because the Obama-appointed judge made it.

The judge begins his opinion, which is 41 pages long, by quoting President James Buchanan: “I do . . . solemnly protest against these proceedings of the House of Representatives, because they are in violation of the rights of the coordinate executive branch of the Government, and subversive of its constitutional independence; because they are calculated to foster a band of interested parasites and informers, ever ready, for their own advantage, to swear before ex parte committees to pretended private conversations between the President and themselves, incapable, from their nature, of being disproved; thus furnishing material for harassing him, degrading him in the eyes of the country.”

When Buchanan wrote these words in March 1860, he was obviously displeased with the House of Representatives. Trump might well agree with Buchanan about “interested parasites and informers” who “swear before ... committees to pretended private conversations” that can’t, because of their very nature, be disproved. Trump would surely agree that these conversations are “furnishing material for harassing him, degrading him in the eyes of the country.” Trump often sums up his feelings about probes into his behavior in two words: “witch hunt.”

As Judge Mehta explained, President Buchanan’s words “protested a resolution adopted by the U.S. House of Representatives to form a committee ... to investigate whether the President ... had sought to influence the actions of Congress by improper means.”

It’s nothing new for presidents to fight congressional committees that are trying to perform their oversight function. President Nixon fought congressional subpoenas from the Senate Watergate Committee and House Judiciary Committee.

In the case at hand, the battle over the president’s financial records is between Trump and the Committee on Oversight and Reform of the U.S. House of Representatives. The committee currently has the upper hand because of Judge Mehta’s order that Mazar’s USA LLP, an accounting firm, comply with the committee’s subpoena by handing over records on Trump dating back to 2011.

Michael Cohen is in the thick of it. The committee wants records that go all the way back to 2011 because of his testimony. Cohen entered a minimum security prison in Otisville, New York, on May 6 to serve a three-year sentence for, among other things, lying to Congress. He pleaded guilty.

In 2017, Cohen had told the House Intelligence Committee, among other things, that talks about a project to build a Trump Tower in Moscow had concluded by January 2016, but later he admitted that the talks were ongoing until at least June 2016.

As Judge Mehta explained, the committee decided to issue the subpoena after Cohen testified that “the President routinely would alter the estimated value of his assets and liabilities on financial statements, depending on the purpose for which a statement was needed.”

Then the judge gave some particulars: “For instance, Cohen said that the President provided inflated financial statements to a bank to obtain a loan to purchase a National Football League franchise. But when it came time to calculate his real estate taxes, the President would deflate the value of certain assets.”

The judge said that Cohen, to back up his accusations, gave the committee financial statements from the years 2011 through 2013, and Mazars prepared at least two of those statements.

The question before the judge was whether the committee’s subpoena, in the judge’s words, “exceeds the Committee’s constitutional power to conduct investigations.”

Succinctly, the judge presented the president’s position: “The President argues that there is no legislative purpose for the subpoena. The Oversight Committee’s true motive, the President insists, is to collect personal information about him solely for political advantage. He asks the court to declare the Mazars subpoena invalid and unenforceable.”

So has the committee overstepped its bounds? The judge explained, “Courts have grappled for more than a century with the question of the scope of Congress’s investigative power.”


About opinions in the Missourian: The Missourian’s Opinion section is a public forum for the discussion of ideas. The views presented in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Missourian or the University of Missouri. If you would like to contribute to the Opinion page with a response or an original topic of your own, visit our submission form.

The bottom line is this: The judge concluded, based on past judicial decisions, that he had to defer to the Committee’s judgment on what information it needed.

The judge explained: “According to the Oversight Committee, it believes that the requested records will aid its consideration of strengthening ethics and disclosure laws .... The Committee also says that the records will assist in monitoring the President’s compliance with the Foreign Emoluments Clauses. These are facially valid legislative purposes, and it is not for the court to question whether the Committee’s actions are truly motivated by political considerations.” Although the judge stated that “President Trump cannot block the subpoena to Mazars,” the president will surely appeal. Trump is obviously protective of his financial information, as seen by his continuing refusal to release his income tax records.

If the committee ultimately wins, it may get a treasure trove of information from Mazars.

On Tuesday the president blocked former White House Counsel Don McGahn from testifying in front of the House Judiciary Committee, defying the committee’s subpoena. Also on Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee subpoenaed former White House staffers Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson.

{span}Then Wednesday brought another ruling against President Trump when a New York federal judge, Edgardo Ramos, said that Deutsche Bank and Capital One can comply with congressional subpoenas for Trump’s financial records. Echoing Judge Mehta’s view, Judge Ramos said: “The power of Congress to conduct investigations is inherent in the legislative process.”{/span}

And the beat goes on....

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