A U.S. District judge is expected to rule Wednesday on President Donald Trump’s request to block Deutsche Bank and Capital One from complying with subpoenas from the House Financial Services and Intelligence committees, which are seeking records related to the president’s business dealings.
The impending decision from Judge Edgardo Ramos comes just days after a ruling from different judge, Amit Mehta, that the president’s accounting firm must turn over financial records to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.
Trump, who maintains he is facing unprecedented and unfair scrutiny from Congress, is calling on the courts to bring lawmakers to heel. It’s a bold assertion. It also happens to be bogus.
Bloomberg reported Wednesday that Mehta essentially has bequeathed Ramos a “fresh ruling he can rely on: a strongly worded opinion … saying that lawmakers have the power to demand records from the president’s accountants.” Bloomberg’s report strongly implies that Ramos is likely to follow this roadmap, freeing Deutsche Bank and Capital One to comply with the House’s subpoenas.
As ThinkProgress reported, Mehta’s opinion was quite clear: Congress had a legitimate legislative purpose for seeking the information, and a vital “informing function” to play, permitting “Congress to inquire into and publicize corruption, maladministration or inefficiency in agencies of the government.”
Trump and his family have argued otherwise. As Bloomberg reports, their defense hinges on convincing Ramos that they face scrutiny of a uniquely overbearing nature:
“Never before has Congress used its investigatory powers to rifle through the private financial information of a sitting president, his family and his businesses,” the Trumps argued in a court filing. They argued that letting the demands go forward would mean that “nonstop investigations into the personal lives of presidents” will become “the new normal.”
Anyone who remembers the 1990s will recognize an immediate flaw in this argument. President Bill Clinton’s business dealings pertaining to real estate investments in the Whitewater Development Corporation were the target of multiple congressional investigations, in addition to a multi-pronged inquiry conducted by then-independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
In the summer of 1994, lawmakers in the House Banking Committee and the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee launched hearings into Clinton’s business dealings. The following May, the U.S. Senate formed its Whitewater Committee, which would go on to hold over 300 hours of hearings over the course of the following year.
The very existence of this committee rather deftly destroys the central premise of Trump’s defense: As it turns out, “non-stop investigations into the personal lives of presidents” is, if anything, an “old normal.”
Trump could have forestalled congressional inquiries into his private business dealings by taking the steps recommended by the Office of Government Ethics at the outset of his presidency to ensure its success: Namely, divest himself of his assets and place the proceeds into a blind trust.
It was good advice that Trump opted to not follow. Had he done so, many avenues of investigation into his businesses simply wouldn’t exist.
His refusal to divest from his holdings — including a welter of individual LLCs that stretch around the globe and encompass hundreds of discrete assets — was, at the very least, a ripe source of suspicion for anyone concerned about the Emoluments Clause. That provision of the U.S. Constitution bars a president from receiving compensation, or anything of value, from foreign powers for personal gain.
If the nature of Trump’s business arrangements weren’t enough to raise ethical concerns, the president’s own words and deeds raise additional concerns. As Samantha Black wrote in the Harvard Journal on Legislation, “The 2016 election saw a shift in how candidates confronted their conflicts of interest. Rather than attempting to avoid conflicts, then-candidate Trump embraced his.”
As Black goes on to note, Trump has openly admitted “that his policy decisions currently are and would be continued to be affected by his business ventures.” Black cites a 2015 interview with Meet The Press in which Trump states that his position on statehood for Washington, D.C., would be governed in part by what financial benefit would accrue to his Pennsylvania Avenue hotel. “I would like to do whatever’s good for the District of Columbia,” Trump said, “I have a total conflict of interest.”
In the years since, Trump has changed his tune, often insisting that a U.S. president by definition cannot have a conflict of interest. This, of course, is not actually true, even if the president is not subject to conflict of interest laws. It has generally been accepted that presidents must strive to rid themselves of conflicts of interest in order to set the right tone from the start. It is matter of a simple logic that the president should not hew to a lesser standard than other executive branch officials, who are subject to such laws.
The salient point is that Trump has, through his own actions, placed himself on a collision course with congressional inquiries into his business dealings. He has been brought to this point by his sprawling array of Emolument Clause-testing business interests and the huge number of red flags his own statements have raised over the years. Trump’s claim that stringent oversight is unprecedented is wholly without merit.
The president always had the ability to prevent wide-ranging inquiries into his business dealings — including the one pertaining to his relationship with Deutsche Bank and Capital One — simply by following the recommendations of his own ethics officers. He chose not to, and now must reap the rewards.