Justices on the United States Supreme Court on Tuesday pressed a lawyer for Donald Trump to justify the president’s bid to block Democratic-led congressional committees from getting access to his financial records in a major showdown over presidential powers.
The nine justices kicked off a scheduled one-hour argument over attempts by committees in the House of Representatives to obtain the records in a pair of cases that test the authority of Congress to conduct oversight of the president.
Lawyers for Trump and Department of Justice, which is siding with the president, argued that the president cannot be investigated while he remains in office, by either committee of the US Congress or local prosecutors in his hometown of New York City – both of whom are seeking his tax returns and financial records from the years before he took office.
The court’s decision in the cases, expected in June, could shape the outcome of November’s presidential election and redefine the limits of presidential power. Rulings against the president could result in the quick release of personal financial information that Trump has sought strenuously to keep private.
Before the coronavirus pandemic erupted, the cases marked the most politically treacherous proceedings against Trump since the impeachment hearings in January. If, as some have testified, the financial records show that Trump has been artificially inflating his net worth for decades – to both the general public and to the banks lending him money – the sheen on his career in business, one of the president’s primary selling points, could quickly lose its luster.
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 had no authority to issue the subpoenas and had no valid legislative reason for seeking the records. The amount, the lawyers argued, to “harassment” of the president.
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 the 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.
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan 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-ton 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.