U.S. appeals court upholds release of Trump financial records to House

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford.
Former president Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hyatt Regency Orlando on Feb 28, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.

A federal appeals court panel ruled Friday that House lawmakers can see years of former president Donald Trump’s financial accounting records but narrowed the range of documents Trump must turn over in a long-running legal battle over his compliance with presidential ethics and disclosure laws.

The fight is not over – both sides can still appeal the three-judge panel’s ruling to the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit or to the Supreme Court. But the decision marked a partial victory for each side over a subpoena issued in 2019 by the House Oversight Committee to Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA.

“We uphold the Committee’s authority to subpoena certain of President Trump’s financial records in furtherance of the Committee’s enumerated legislative purposes,” Chief Circuit Judge Sri Srinivasan wrote. “But we cannot sustain the breadth of the Committee’s subpoena.”

The panel was revisiting a matter that the Supreme Court returned to the lower courts for further proceedings in July 2020.

In a complex, nuanced 67-page opinion, Srinivasan interpreted how to apply the Supreme Court’s directive to “insist on a subpoena no broader than reasonably necessary to support Congress’s legislative objective.” The case deals with a largely unprecedented fight over how far Congress can go in investigating alleged corruption by the nation’s chief executive, and what protections former presidents retain from lawmakers’ probing after leaving office under the Constitution’s separation-of-powers.

Trump, who lost reelection in 2020 and is likely preparing another bid for the White House in 2024, was the first major party nominee in decades to refuse to release his tax returns, publicly criticizing the Internal Revenue Service for auditing him. Trump declined to divest himself of his business holdings, and while in office oversaw the government leasing agency for his flagship Washington hotel even as his businesses took in millions from both the federal government and foreign powers.

In response, congressional Democrats launched several efforts to investigate his finances, which Trump stonewalled. The House oversight committee demanded a host of information from Mazars about Trump and his business entities for an eight-year period spanning from 2011 to 2018, saying his presidency exposed weaknesses in oversight that could only be addressed with the information. The committee said it sought the documents to corroborate testimony of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen that Trump artificially inflated and deflated the reported value of his assets for personal gain.

Trump filed suit in May 2019 to block the release, arguing that he enjoyed absolute immunity from legislative inquiries and that House Democrats only wanted to expose his data for political gain.

In another case still pending appeal, Trump also opposed a House Ways and Means Committee demand to see six years of his federal tax records. After Trump left office, President Biden’s Treasury Department agreed that the records should be disclosed, and a federal judge appointed by Trump agreed last December. Trump has continued to fight the release as a private citizen.

The judges in Friday’s decision – Srinivasan and U.S. Appeals Court judge Judith Rogers – questioned during oral arguments late last year whether forcing a former president to share his financial information upon leaving office could have a “chilling effect” on all future commanders in chief, as Trump attorney Cameron Norris argued.

At the same time, Ketanji Brown Jackson – the third judge who heard arguments but who since has been elevated to the Supreme Court and did not participate in the opinion – voiced concerns about carving out long-lasting protections for presidents after they return to private life, undermining Congress’s authority.

In the end, Srinivasan navigated a middle ground, parsing the committee’s demand for three types of information – documents relating to Trump’s business and personal financial records with Mazars; records regarding the federal lease for Trump’s recently sold Trump International Hotel at the Old Post Office building in downtown Washington; and records related to legislation regarding the “foreign emoluments” clause of the Constitution, which bars presidents from accepting gifts from foreign nations.

The court said lawmakers could obtain Mazars records, source documents and engagement letters from 2014 through 2018, but only those that “reference, indicate, or discuss any undisclosed, false, or otherwise inaccurate information” about Trump’s reported assets, liabilities, or income, as well as any related communications that information was incomplete, inaccurate, or “otherwise unsatisfactory.”

The court also upheld the subpoena for documents related to his federal hotel lease spanning from Trump’s election in November 2016 through 2018, but only from the business that held the lease, Trump Old Post Office LLC. Finally, the appeals court agreed that the House could obtain all documents from 2017 and 2018 related to financial ties or transactions between Trump or a Trump entity and “any foreign state or foreign state agency, the United States, any federal agency, any state or any state agency, or an individual government official.”

The committee has “amassed detailed evidence of suspected misrepresentations and omissions” in Trump’s required disclosure forms, according to the court, and provided “detailed and substantial” explanations of how his financial disclosures, government contracts, and acceptance of foreign gifts as president could inform changes to federal law meant to protect taxpayers and police conflicts of interest among political officeholders.

“If the level of evidence presented by the Committee here does not suffice to obtain a narrowed subset of the former president’s information, we doubt that any Congress could obtain a President’s papers,” the judges wrote, adding that “requiring disclosures aimed at preventing Presidents from engaging in self-dealing and other conflicts of interest is assuredly a legitimate legislative purpose.”

“Former President Donald Trump displayed an unprecedented disregard for federal ethics and financial transparency,” House oversight committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., said in a written statement. She said while it was “disappointing that the Court narrowed the subpoena in some respects,” she was pleased it “upheld key parts of the Committee’s subpoena, affirmed our authority to obtain documents from Mazars, and rejected former President Trump’s spurious arguments that Congress cannot investigate his financial misconduct.”

Trump attorneys with the Consovoy McCarthy law firm did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.

Friday’s ruling whittled down a similar August 2021 decision by the trial judge in the case. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta limited documents lawmakers could obtain to a wider set of Trump’s personal financial records from 2017 and 2018, when he was president, and records related to his Washington hotel lease and legislation regarding the emoluments clause.

The courts acted after Chief Justice John Roberts in July 2020 upheld Congress’s authority generally to issue subpoenas for a president’s personal financial records, but ruled in a 7-2 opinion that congressional subpoenas seeking a president’s information must be “no broader than reasonably necessary” and returned the question to lower courts to work out the standard.

The case was not resolved before Congress’s term expired in January 2020, but the newly elected House, still under Democratic control, renewed its request in February 2021.