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House panel: Separation-of-powers concerns no longer apply in Trump financial records case

Case is all but certain to head back to appellate courts and even the Supreme Court

Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., arrives for a May 3 House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing.
Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., arrives for a May 3 House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The House Oversight and Reform Committee told a federal judge late Wednesday that it should be easier to obtain former President Donald Trump’s financial records from an accounting firm now that he is just that — the former president.

The committee has returned to the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to continue its more than two-year effort to enforce a congressional subpoena to Mazars USA, the accounting firm for Trump and several of his business entities.

Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., reissued the subpoena this Congress, seeking eight years of accounting and other financial information from both before and after Trump took office.

Trump’s challenge to that subpoena already went to the Supreme Court, which for the first time put limits on congressional power to subpoena a sitting president’s personal and business information because of separation-of-powers concerns.

The justices last year laid out what Congress and the courts must do before subpoenas for a president’s records can be enforced — the so-called Mazars test for judges to consider. The Supreme Court then sent the case back to lower courts to consider again.

Now the Oversight Committee has argued that the Supreme Court’s test shouldn’t factor into the case at all because it was specific to the subpoena’s burdens on a sitting president. It urges the judge to analyze the subpoena through a different legal standard that has lower hurdles to enforcement.

“But Donald Trump is no longer the President,” the committee wrote in its motion filed late Wednesday. “Accordingly, the Supreme Court’s separation-of-powers test for subpoenas seeking the President’s personal information no longer applies.”

Instead, the committee urged the judge to apply a test from a 1977 case related to former President Richard Nixon and a law that required the General Services Administration to take control of 42 million pages of documents and 880 tape recordings to ensure that Nixon would not destroy records related to Watergate.

That Nixon test “weighs the Committee’s need for the subpoenaed documents — which is significant — against the harm to the Presidency implicated by production of a former President’s personal information — which is limited,” the committee wrote.

The committee argues that subpoenas for a former president’s information “plainly pose a far lower risk” to a president’s discharge of his duties, and a former president has fewer incentives to accommodate Congress’ pursuit of the information.

“A former President has no need for Congress’s help funding the government or advancing his legislative priorities,” the committee’s motion states.

“Nor is he subject to impeachment or electoral consequences for defying a Congressional inquiry,” the motion states. “Thus, the background ‘tradition of negotiation and compromise’ against which the Supreme Court crafted its test … no longer applies to Plaintiff Trump as a private citizen.”

The committee also argues that it should get the information anyway because it has satisfied the Mazars test.

Attorneys for Trump have argued that the Mazars test still applies and that the committee has not satisfied it, in part because they say the subpoena lacks a legitimate legislative purpose, that the committee’s primary purpose for seeking the information is not related to legislation, and that it is overbroad.

Both sides agreed to have the judge rule quickly in the case. A hearing is set on the case for June 18.

The case is all but certain to head back to appellate courts and even the Supreme Court no matter how Judge Amit P. Mehta rules on whether the subpoena can be enforced.

Trump’s lawyers and the House don’t dispute any facts in the case, only whether those facts meet the new legal test the Supreme Court set.

House committees first subpoenaed Trump’s financial information in April 2019. The committee chairman who first issued the subpoena, Democratic Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, died in October 2019.

Maloney, in a Feb. 23 memo to committee members, wrote that Congress still needs the information in Trump’s personal financial records “to inform legislative action to address the once-in-a-generation ethics crisis created by former President Trump’s unprecedented conflicts of interest.”

Those legislative efforts are just as critical after Trump left the White House, Maloney wrote.

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