WASHINGTON (CN) – Vying to nix a House subpoena of financial records, a lawyer for President Donald Trump made little headway Tuesday with his argument that the power of Congress to investigate federal agency wrongdoing does not also cover the executive.
“You mean to tell me that because he’s the president of the United States,” said U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, “Congress has no authority to investigate?”
Mehta, who was appointed to the bench by former President Barack Obama, directed the question this morning at William Consovoy, a lawyer for Trump with the firm Consovoy McCarthy.
Trump initiated the suit here last month to quash a subpoena of eight years of financial records from his longtime accountants at Mazar USA LLC.
Rejecting assertions by Representative Elijah Cummings, a Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Consovoy disputes that access to the records serves any legislative purpose.
“They want to know if there was wrongdoing,” Consovoy said. “And that is not the purpose of Congress.”
Consovoy did not have an answer when Mehta pointed to the Watergate investigation, asking whether he believed that also exceeded Congress’ constitutional authority.
“I’d have to look at the basis,” Consovoy said.
House general counsel Douglas Letter faced tough questions at the hearing as well, however, as Mehta expressed frustration at the lack of specificity concerning the scope and subject matter of the subpoena.
“It really does open the door, it seems to me, to the accusation that this really is sort of an effort – if not to harass the president – then to get into his private affairs for political purposes,” Mehta said.
Letter shot back that the purpose behind the committee’s subpoena is legitimate, emphasizing that the committee can request any documents necessary to fulfill its role as an informative body.
“I’m not a prophet, you’re not a prophet,” Letter said, in reference to the judge’s inability to foresee what legislation the House may draft in the future related to what the subpoenaed Trump financial records may show.
Asked whether there is any private material that would be off limits to a subpoena, Letter cited the example of demanding the president’s blood or his diary from when he was 7 years old. That would stretch the defense argument to “a breaking point,” Letter said.
Pivoting then to the type of information that the committee considers fair game, Letter brought up Trump’s new hotel in Washington, D.C., on property leased from the General Services Administration. He said records about this transaction are necessary to assess whether the president is fully severed from his private business transactions while in office.
Pressed for assurances that subpoenaed information would not be “spilled out into the public,” Letter said Cummings and the committee will give Trump an opportunity to address the issue of public access. He emphasized, however, that the final say on what stays secret is a decision that belongs to the committee.
The feud over the subpoena comes amid escalating tensions between the White House and Congress.
Following the release of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference in 2016, President Trump and administration officials have moved to block all Democratic efforts to unearth the evidence underlying the report, along with his personal financial records, some of which predate his presidency.
Last week the president also exerted executive privilege over the Mueller report, while the House Judiciary Committee voted to recommend that the House hold Attorney General William Barr in contempt for refusing to give Congress an unredacted copy of it.