Tweety McTreason has suffered yet another defeat in court in his long battle to keep anyone from seeing his financial records. And this one comes with a vivid illustration of one paradox of the Trump presidency: No president has ever made such sweeping claims of immunity from investigation, and no president has ever had less of a right to keep his activities secret from the American public.
A federal appeals court in New York — the last stop before the Supreme Court — ruled Tuesday that Deutsche Bank and Capital One must comply with subpoenas from the House Financial Services and Intelligence committees for financial records from Trump, his children and the Trump Organization (though not his tax returns, which the banks say they do not possess; a separate case involving his accounting firm could produce those).
Deutsche Bank is of particular interest, since after a string of bankruptcies some years ago Trump found himself unable to get loans from any legitimate bank — except for Deutsche Bank, which continued to lend him hundreds of millions of dollars.
Trump’s lawyers argue that he should be able to keep his financial information private and that Congress is not serving any legitimate legislative purpose by asking for it. The appeals court didn’t buy that for a second:
The public interest in vindicating the Committees’ constitutional authority is clear and substantial. It is the interest of two congressional committees, functioning under the authority of a resolution of the House of Representatives authorizing the subpoenas at issue, to obtain information on enforcement of anti‐money‐laundering/counter‐financing of terrorism laws, terrorist financing, the movement of illicit funds through the global financial system including the real estate market, the scope of the Russian government’s operations to influence the U.S. political process, and whether [Trump] was vulnerable to foreign exploitation.
In other words, Congress has a right to see Trump’s private information precisely because he’s potentially implicated in so many different kinds of crime and corruption.
As preposterous as many of the claims Trump has made in court have been, he’s half right about one thing in this case. He argues that the subpoenas should be quashed because Congress isn’t really seeking them for the purpose of legislating; they’re just out to get him for political reasons. The latter part of that assertion is undeniably true: Democrats are indeed out to get him, in the same sense as pretty much every investigation by the opposition in Congress is out to get the president.
When congressional Republicans mounted eight (yes, eight) separate investigations of Benghazi, it wasn’t because of their passionate commitment to consular security, it was because they were out to get Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Nevertheless, investigating the tragedy was well within the scope of their authority. Likewise, the Democrats’ motivation to find something incriminating on Trump doesn’t wash away the fact that there are multiple legitimate reasons to inquire about his finances.
And here’s the key: The reason Democrats have a legitimate purpose to investigate Trump is that so many of his actions are suspicious in ways that bear directly on pressing public issues. It’s because Trump is so profoundly corrupt that he cannot legitimately quash subpoenas into his private affairs.
Trump lied to the public about whether he had any financial interests in Russia during the 2016 campaign. His properties have long been a magnet for money laundering from Russian mobsters and oligarchs. He has financed projects with suspicious investors from the former Soviet Union. His activities with Deutsche Bank were flagged by employees as potentially involving money laundering.
Had Congress tried to obtain personal financial records for Obama or George W. Bush, those presidents would have had a much stronger case to quash the subpoenas on the grounds that it was just a fishing expedition with no legitimate connection to legislation lawmakers might consider.
But Trump is the last president who can make that claim. His corruption, both foreign and domestic, is so deep and wide that it needs to be fully understood if Congress is to decide what new anti-corruption legislation is necessary to protect our system in the future.
One other interesting thing came out of the decision. Trump’s attorneys also argued that Congress is actually looking for evidence of a crime, and that’s impermissible because it is not a law enforcement agency. The court rejected that argument as well, noting the fact that a legitimate investigation might uncover criminal activity doesn’t mean Congress can’t do that investigation.
And there’s a strong possibility that when Trump’s records are turned over, there will indeed be evidence of crimes. When he testified before Congress, former Trump fixer Michael Cohen explained how Trump would lie to banks about the value of his properties to obtain loans, which is illegal.
ProPublica has recently documented specific cases in which Trump gave one set of figures on his financial position to his lenders (laying out a spectacular income that would make him a safe lending risk) and a very different set to tax authorities (pleading poverty to lower his tax bill). The documents ProPublica obtained suggest that Trump was committing both bank fraud and tax fraud.
Which is just one of the reasons Trump is so desperate to keep these documents secret.
Throughout his life, Trump used his wealth as a shield against accountability, allowing him to commit all manner of misdeeds. Again and again, he deceived, dominated or defeated people who had less power than him and institutions incapable of constraining him, whether it was a woman he abused, a small business owner he stiffed on a bill, a mark whose life savings he stole with one of his scams, workers left holding the bag when he walked away from his debts or a government agency that didn’t realize he was defrauding it until the statute of limitations had expired.
Now that he’s president, Trump is acting in precisely the same way, except instead of using his money and fame to shield himself, he’s trying to use the powers of the presidency. But he may not get away with it much longer.