WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump, under siege from House Democrats weighing impeachment, suffered a stinging blow as a federal appeals court upheld a subpoena ordering his accountants to provide Congress with his financial records.
The ruling, by a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, means Trump will lose control of his long-secret financial records at Mazars USA LLP unless the full court reconsiders the decision or the U.S. Supreme Court blocks it.
In their 2-1 decision, the judges rejected arguments made by lawyers for the president that the House Oversight and Reform Committee had no legitimate legislative reason to seek the information.
"Disputes between Congress and the president are a recurring plot in our national story," U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel wrote in the majority's 66-page opinion. "And that is precisely what the Framers intended." He quoted the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who said that the purpose of the separation of powers was "to save the people from autocracy."
The ruling, which doesn't take effect for at least seven days, comes shortly after a federal judge in New York rejected Trump's challenge to a separate, state subpoena requiring Mazars to turn over Trump's tax filings and other financial records to New York prosecutors -- though the president won a last-minute delay pending an emergency appeal.
Friday's majority opinion called the House subpoena "a valid exercise of the legislative oversight authority because it seeks information important to determining the fitness of legislation to address potential problems within the Executive Branch and the electoral system." The court said the document demand "does not seek to determine the President's fitness for office."
Trump, the Trump Organization and the president's three oldest children have steadfastly refused to surrender their records to Congress. Armed with the papers, Democratic lawmakers say, they could better explore any conflicts of interest in the executive branch and whether the president has violated the Constitution's emoluments clauses.
"There's a lot of speculation, but it seems that the accounting firm has tax returns and other documents that will show President Trump and his family and associates involved in all sorts of deals," Washington lawyer David Dorsen, who served as assistant chief counsel to the U.S. Senate's Watergate Committee in the 1970s, said in an interview. Lawmakers will want to know whether documents show "payoffs to people in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere," he said.
"That would be an enormous, enormous factor in what's going on now," Dorsen said.
Trump's lawyers could ask the full appeals court to consider the ruling, which might drag out the process, or go straight to the Supreme Court for an emergency review of the decision.