Trump appointee justice Brett Kavanaugh. Picture: AFP/SAUL LOEB
Trump appointee justice Brett Kavanaugh. Picture: AFP/SAUL LOEB

Washington — US supreme court justices pressed a lawyer for US President Donald Trump to justify his bid to block Democrat-led congressional committees from getting access to his financial records in a major showdown over presidential powers, on Tuesday.

The nine justices kicked off a scheduled one-hour argument over attempts by House of Representatives committees to obtain the records in a pair of cases that test the authority of Congress to conduct oversight of the president.

In both cases, Trump has sought to block enforcement of subpoenas by House of Representatives committees seeking his financial records from Mazars, his long-time accounting firm, and two banks, Deutsche Bank and Capital One. A third case to be argued later in the day involves Trump’s bid to block enforcement of a New York City prosecutor’s subpoena for financial records.

Early in the arguments, the justices queried Trump’s lawyer, Patrick Strawbridge, about whether lawmakers can ever subpoena a president’s financial records. Conservative chief justice John Roberts questioned Strawbridge on the broad scope of his arguments.

“Do you concede any power in the House to subpoena personal papers of the president?” Roberts asked. Strawbridge said it was “difficult to imagine” a situation where that would be justified.

Trump’s lawyers have argued that the congressional panels have no authority to issue the subpoenas and no valid legislative reason for seeking the records.

Liberal justice Elena Kagan noted that where personal records are concerned ‘the president is just a man’

Liberal justice Stephen Breyer probed whether, under the approach taken by Trump’s lawyers, Congress would have been able to properly investigate the Watergate scandal of the 1970s under president Richard Nixon. Breyer said that in that instance, material related to the president’s official duties were handed over to lawmakers.

Breyer grilled Strawbridge about whether, under view of the law being argued by Trump’s legal team, a Senate panel headed by senator Sam Ervin would have been able to investigate Watergate. “Are you saying the Ervin committee subpoenas were unlawful? Yes or no?,” Breyer asked.

Strawbridge sidestepped the question.

Fellow liberal justice Elena Kagan noted that where personal records are concerned “the president is just a man”. She said past presidents had reached compromises with Congress in disputes over access to documents.

“What it seems to me you’re asking us to do is to put a kind of 10-tonne weight on the scales between the president and Congress, and essentially to make it impossible for Congress to perform oversight and to carry out its functions,” Kagan told Strawbridge.

Conservative justice Neil Gorsuch, one of Trump’s two appointees to the court, wondered why the court should not defer to the House on whether its subpoenas have a valid legislative purposes.

The third case, being argued immediately afterward, concerns a subpoena issued to Mazars for similar information, including tax returns, as part of a grand jury investigation into Trump being conducted by the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a Democrat.

Lower courts in Washington and New York ruled against Trump in all three cases.

Expansive view

Three months after Trump avoided removal from office in a Senate impeachment trial, Trump’s lawyers want the supreme court to endorse their expansive view of presidential powers that would severely limit the ability of Congress to carry out oversight of presidents and of prosecutors to investigate them.

The court has a 5-4 majority and includes two justices appointed by Trump. He has won key victories at the court including over his hardline immigration policies but lost a big case a year ago regarding the US census when Roberts joined the court’s four liberals.

Trump, unlike other recent presidents, has declined to release his tax returns and other financial records that could shed light on his net worth and the activities of his family real-estate company, the Trump Organisation. The content of these records remains an enduring mystery of his presidency.

Rulings are likely within weeks, with Trump seeking re-election on November 3 amid the coronavirus pandemic. The cases will be heard in two separate arguments by teleconference, a format adopted during the pandemic.

The House committees have said they are seeking the material as part of investigations into potential money laundering by banks and into whether Trump inflated and deflated certain assets on financial statements — as his former personal lawyer has said — in part to reduce his real estate taxes.

The New York criminal investigation was spurred by disclosures of hush-money payments by Trump to two women — pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal — who said they had past sexual relationships with him.

In the New York case, Trump’s lawyers argued that his records cannot be handed over because of his authority as president under the constitution, contending he is immune from any criminal proceeding while in office. Even if Trump shot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue, prosecutors would be powerless to act while he was still in office, his lawyers argued before losing at a lower court.

The cases are among the most consequential in years on the parameters of presidential powers. The court in some landmark cases has ruled against presidents.

In 1997, it unanimously decided that sitting presidents could be sued for conduct outside official duties, ruling against president Bill Clinton’s bid to delay a sexual harassment lawsuit. In 1974, it unanimously ruled that president Richard Nixon must comply with a court’s subpoena for tape recordings in the Watergate scandal.

Reuters