Clamor for Trump Hotel Records Underway in DC Circuit

The Trump International Hotel in Washington on Jan. 30, 2018. A federal appeals court heard arguments Tuesday in a lawsuit by lawmakers who seek financial records tied to President Donald Trump’s hotel near the White House. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — A Justice Department lawyer faced an uphill battle Tuesday in arguing that lawmakers lack standing to access financials on the president’s eponymous hotel, located just blocks from the White House. 

“They do not have a private right to information,” Justice Department attorney Hashim Mooppan told the three-judge panel this morning.

In asserting otherwise, David Charney Vladeck, an attorney for the lawmakers with the Georgetown University Law Center, said that a Congressional statute known as the Seven Member Rule entitles individual members of the House Oversight Committee to obtain information from an executive agency, even if the full committee does not join in the request.

The appeal from House Democrats looks to overturn a ruling from July that found the lawmakers lacked standing, having failed to use other political tools to access the sought-after records.

Vladeck said the failure by the General Services Administration to comply here caused a “concrete and particularized” personal injury to each lawmaker.

U.S. Circuit Judge Patricia Millett, an Obama appointee, and U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel, a Clinton nominee, pressed Mooppan on this claim.

“This is a particularized injury that affects them in a personal way,” Tatel said. “Why is that not the right analysis?”

Earlier in the hearing, Tatel told Mooppan, “You need to read the statute.”

But Mooppan held firm to his claim that the members of the House Oversight Committee have no private right to information — only to further their legislative oversight. 

“Everyone understands this is an oversight statute,” he said. “It is not a fringe benefit.”

The battle here started months before President Donald Trump’s inauguration when lawmakers within the House Oversight Committee requested unredacted copies from the government of lease documents and financial statements from the Trump International Hotel.

The president and his children leased the Old Post Office building on Pennsylvania Avenue to host the business back in 2013. Though Trump claims not to profit directly off the hotel because any income from the business lies in revocable trusts controlled by his children, his name remains on the lease.

Democrats argue meanwhile that foreign delegates frequenting the hotel violates the emoluments clause in the Constitution, which prohibits the president from receiving gifts from foreign or state governments or officials while in office without congressional consent.

Trump called the emoluments clause “phony” in a recent cabinet meeting, and his General Services Administration ruled the 60-year lease agreement Trump made with the federal government was in compliance.

The Justice Department attorney was not the only one to face tough questions from the appellate panel Tuedsay.

“How do I know whether that triggers a separation of powers problem?” Millett asked Vladeck.

Assuring the court that the Seven Member Rule never touches the president or the White House, Vladek replied that it allows only for congressional oversight of executive agencies.

“The risk of getting into a tangle over executive privilege is much less than if a subpoena was issued,” Vladeck said. 

Reagan-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Douglas Ginsburg inquired whether the statute hands the seven lawmakers the authority to seek documents, but does not intend for the judiciary to enforce the request. 

“With all due respect your honor, that renders the statute dead letter,” Vladeck said.

Joined by his colleagues, Ginsburg also questioned why the House had not made a formal request as a full body for the GSA documents, suggesting the leadership does not wish to stir up disputes.

But Vladeck argued a request from the full House was unnecessary. 

The statute, the attorney repeatedly told the judges, delegates full power to the seven members of the committee to request and receive information from executive agencies. 

The House has repeatedly told the D.C. Circuit in arguing for the court to enforce House subpoenas for Trump’s financial records that unveiling the president’s personal holding directly relates to ethics and financial disclosure laws.

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