Rule of Law

Federal judge temporarily halts congressional Democrats’ subpoenas of Trump financial records

A federal judge temporarily blocked subpoenas from congressional Democrats for President Trump’s financial records after an appeals court weighed in on the issue.

The appeals court in Washington intervened Friday in the legal battle between the lawmakers and Trump over whether the president’s private business violates the Constitution’s ban on gifts or payments from foreign governments.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sent the case back to the U.S. District Court judge handling the lawsuit proceedings for another look at how the untested separation-of-powers issues at stake affect whether the case should move ahead and, if so, at what pace.

The lower-court judge, Emmet G. Sullivan, promptly issued an order putting the subpoenas on hold. He previously had said the congressional requests could proceed.

The appeals-court ruling from Judges Patricia A. Millett, Cornelia T.L. Pillard and Robert Wilkins came in response to the president’s request to halt the lawsuit and block 37 subpoenas for information about his private financial records, including ones related to Trump Tower and his Mar-a-Lago Club in South Florida.

The D.C. Circuit said the lower court had probably “abused its discretion” by not allowing the immediate appeal the president requested.

The Supreme Court has never weighed in directly on what can or can’t happen to a president. The Fact Checker explains the current legal landscape. (Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

Given the separation-of-powers issues in play, the appeals court said Sullivan had not adequately addressed whether “resolving the legal questions and/or postponing discovery would be preferable” before proceeding to discovery.

All three appeals-court judges were nominated to the bench by President Barack Obama.

The case will now return to Sullivan for “immediate reconsideration” of the president’s request for a midstream appeal before the lawsuit is resolved. The president’s attorneys had cited the “exceptional circumstances.” If Sullivan signs off on that request, the case would go back to the D.C. Circuit for oral argument.

Elizabeth Wydra of the nonprofit Constitutional Accountability Center, which is representing lawmakers, said that “this case presents questions that the courts haven’t previously been called upon to answer,” making the decision to bounce back the case to the lower court to reconsider understandable. But she said the courts must act quickly.

The Justice Department declined to comment.

More than 200 Democratic members of Congress allege the president is violating anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution by accepting payments — or “emoluments” — from foreign and state governments without prior approval from Congress.

In late June, Sullivan allowed the case to move forward and said lawmakers could begin pursuing financial information, interviews and other records from Trump’s businesses.

The lawsuit, along with another brought in federal court in Maryland by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia, marks the first time federal judges have interpreted the emoluments clauses of the Constitution and applied the restrictions to a sitting president. The provisions were designed to guard against foreign influence on U.S. officials.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit on July 10 dismissed the claim from Maryland Attorney General Brian E. Frosh (D) and D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D), saying they did not have legal grounds, known as standing, to sue the president over Trump’s business at his luxury hotel in downtown Washington.

Frosh and Racine have said they would consider asking for a rehearing by a full panel of the 4th Circuit and would not be surprised to see the case reach the Supreme Court.