May 24, 2019

Battle Over Trump’s Finances

Editors' note: Happy Memorial Day weekend! Assuming there isn’t a revolution in the next few days, we’ll be back in full swing Wednesday morning. Pro tip if you’re visiting family: mentioning The Flip Side is a great way to diffuse tense political debates! ;)

“A federal judge ruled against President Donald Trump on Monday in a financial records dispute with Congress and said lawmakers should get the documents they have subpoenaed… [the judge] said the Democratic-led House Oversight and Reform Committee had ‘valid legislative purposes’ for its request and that it was not for him ‘to question whether the Committee’s actions are truly motivated by political considerations.’” AP News

On Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that “a confidential Internal Revenue Service legal memo says tax returns must be given to Congress unless the president takes the rare step of asserting executive privilege [which Trump has not done].” Washington Post

See past issues

From the Left

The left is encouraged by the rulings, which they hope will expose any improprieties in Trump’s finances.

The rulings “[affirm] Congress’ authority to scrutinize the executive branch. Under the Constitution, congressional committees have broad power to conduct investigations, both to carry out its enumerated powers (like impeachment) and to inform potential legislation. The Supreme Court has held that courts have a limited ability to impede Congress’ oversight so long as its actions fall within a ‘legitimate legislative sphere.’ So long a congressional committee has stated a facially legitimate justification for its investigation, courts must treat its subpoenas as valid…

“[In order for Trump to prevail, courts would]  have to look beyond the House’s stated justifications to uncover some impermissible motive. A majority court refused to engage in such scrutiny when evaluating Trump’s own policies, such as his travel ban, even in the face of significant public evidence of unlawful motives; it would be odd if the conservative justices applied a more stringent standard to the (Democratic) House.”
Mark Joseph Stern, Slate

This feels like one of the more important lines from [the judge]… ‘The critical inquiry then is not legislative certainty, but legislative potential.’ Simply put, congressional investigations do not have to be fixed to a specific policy proposal or action.”
Kurt Bardella, NBC News

Moreover, “in [the] legal fight, the Trump administration now no longer can claim a fully united front. Sure, Mnuchin can say Treasury's lawyers advised him that he has the ability to turn down a request for Trump's tax returns if there is no ‘legitimate legislative purpose.’ But the memo -- which comes from the agency specifically tasked with handling the tax returns of Americans -- directly contradicts that view. And it's not a memo that Neal and his fellow House Democrats put together. It's a memo from the damn IRS!
Chris Cillizza, CNN

“The president claims that no Congress has subjected a president to his current level of scrutiny… [But] anyone who remembers the 1990s will recognize an immediate flaw in this argument. President Bill Clinton’s business dealings pertaining to real estate investments in the Whitewater Development Corporation were the target of multiple congressional investigations, in addition to a multi-pronged inquiry conducted by then-independent counsel Kenneth Starr… ‘non-stop investigations into the personal lives of presidents’ is, if anything, an ‘old normal’...

The president always had the ability to prevent wide-ranging inquiries into his business dealings — including the one pertaining to his relationship with Deutsche Bank and Capital One — simply by following the recommendations of his own ethics officers… Namely, divest himself of his assets and place the proceeds into a blind trust.”
Jason Linkins, ThinkProgress

“In the past, presidents have gone to almost any length to assure the public that there wouldn’t be even the barest suggestion of impropriety regarding their personal finances. Jimmy Carter put his peanut farm in a trusteeship. Barack Obama refused to refinance his mortgage when rates fell… ‘People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook,’ Richard M. Nixon said in November 1973, insisting that he welcomed an examination into his personal finances. What he said next — ‘I am not a crook’ — might not have been true, but at the very least he paid lip service to the idea that if the president was in fact a crook, the American public ought to know about it.”
Paul Waldman, Washington Post

“Trump’s defenders will say this evidence is all circumstantial. But circumstantial evidence is not weak evidence: it’s simply evidence based on the circumstances in which an act of wrongdoing is committed — such as the license plate of a car that speeds away from a bank just after that bank is robbed. Criminals are convicted on such evidence all the time. They will also say that there’s no explicit quid pro quo proposal here. But… ‘even when a corrupt deal is struck implicitly, the government can still prosecute extortion on a quid pro quo basis. Circumstantial evidence can be enough to prove a criminal exchange.’…

“In the absence of an explicit quid pro quo over restarting aid, the context and circumstances are what will become the focus of the investigation. There is enough here to support impeachment. Whether it is also enough to convince Republicans and lead to removal is another matter.”
Noah Feldman, Bloomberg

Some suggest that Congress “remove Trump from office, so that he cannot abuse incumbency to subvert the electoral process, but let the American people make the judgment on whether or not he gets a second term… Removing Trump from office for the remainder of his term would disable him from abusing presidential power again and protect the integrity of the electoral process from inappropriate interference. At the same time, letting him run for a second term would permit the American electorate to decide whether Trump, despite his attempt to subvert the system, should have another chance… Decoupling removal from disqualification lowers the stakes and changes the constitutional calculus. As long as Trump can run again, Republicans cannot hide behind a claim that they are [the] ones protecting voter choice by opposing impeachment.”
Edward B. Foley, Politico

From the Right

The right is critical of the subpoenas, which they believe are being used for partisan advantage rather than any legitimate legislative purpose.

From the Right

The right is critical of the subpoenas, which they believe are being used for partisan advantage rather than any legitimate legislative purpose.

“At some point the Supreme Court will have to find a way to apply a limiting principle to congressional authority in regard to the executive branch… The alternative, where Congress has investigative authority without limit, promises an outcome where no executive from a competing party can possibly govern. We will have backed into a proxy parliamentary system, where the executive serves at the whim of one or both chambers of Congress…

“The president derives his or her authority directly from the states and the voters, not Congress, and that is where political accountability should lie as well. The attempts by the House to overwhelm this administration with subpoenas and contempt actions is an attempt to usurp the authority of both the states and voters… It will set precedents that both parties will exploit for revenge, and both parties will live to regret.”
Ed Morrissey, The Week

“America cannot operate this way.Hounding presidents with investigations cannot become a substitute for elections… too many House Democrats, without any Republican support on their committees, have launched unrestrained and unprecedented new investigations of not only the president, but also his family and his businesses – falsely using their limited powers of subpoena in broad and unprecedented ways.”
Mark Penn, Fox News

“During the 1950s, liberals and civil libertarians were deeply concerned about the abuses of congressional investigations… committee leaders would claim that they had legitimate legislative purposes in subpoenaing actors, professors and government employees to interrogate them about their past political affiliations… The obvious purpose was to expose, embarrass and unemploy left-wing individuals associated with the Communist Party during the 1930s… [Similarly] under this decision… Congress could investigate any person for any reason as long as it pretends to be doing so for a legitimate legislative purpose…

“The courts should look beneath the claimed justifications for investigations of individuals and decide whether these justifications represent the real reasons behind the issuance of subpoenas and other exercises of congressional power. There should be a balancing test to weigh the legitimate interests of Congress against the rights of those targeted by its investigations. Congress should not be given carte blanche, as the decision by Judge Mehta gives it, to investigate anyone and anything for any purpose as long as the committee chairmen can recite the correct words as purported justifications for their actions.”
Alan Dershowitz, The Hill

“The privacy of tax returns is a vital part of our entire revenue system. It prevents the tax collection process from being weaponized for political, personal, or other venal motives… [furthermore] Trump’s reluctance to make public his personal and proprietary financial information is completely reasonable, especially given how his political enemies – the very people making these demands – have time and again attempted to spin even the most innocent trivialities into election-season ‘scandals.’...

“Trump has already acknowledged that his tax returns are under IRS audit… If there is any evidence of irregularities in his tax returns, there are already professional, non-partisan, career investigators with full authority to find it… it’s perfectly obvious that there is no legislative or public policy motive behind the hunt for the Trump tax returns. This is all about politics.”
Andy Puzder, Fox News

Regarding her candidacy as a whole, “Warren seems to have concluded that if a rule-breaking candidate like Donald Trump can be elected president, then the old political rules don’t apply any more. So she has endorsed Medicare for All and backs eliminating private health insurance; she has said she’d ban fracking for oil and natural gas; she supports decriminalizing illegal border crossing, health care for illegal immigrants who get across, and paying reparations to the descendants of slaves…

“Warren obviously hopes that her calls for federal oversight of large corporations and her call for a 2% wealth tax on multimillionaires will resonate with non-affluent Trump voters. But those voters seem more concerned with elites’ political correctness than convinced that Warren’s proposal will send their way any money somehow mulcted from corporations…

"This is not to say that Warren is a sure loser. Any Democratic nominee has a serious chance of beating Donald Trump. But it says something interesting about the Democratic Party that its current top three are in their 70's and all from overwhelmingly Democratic states.”
Michael Barone, Washington Examiner

“If a dozen drones or missiles can do the kind of damage to the world economy as did those fired on Saturday—shutting down about 6 percent of world oil production—imagine what a U.S.-Iran-Saudi war would do to the world economy. In recent decades, the U.S. has sold the Saudis hundreds of billions of dollars of military equipment. Did our weapons sales carry a guarantee that we will also come and fight alongside the kingdom if it gets into a war with its neighbors?… the nation does not want another war. How we avoid it, however, is becoming difficult to see. John Bolton may be gone from the West Wing, but his soul is marching on.”
Patrick Buchanan, The American Conservative

Others note, “I’d hate to be a Democratic member of Congress trying to convince Joe Sixpack that this is a whole new ballgame. The transcript shows Trump being Trump and Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky trying to ingratiate himself with the big dog by, for instance, mentioning that he stays at Trump hotels. Trump’s conversation is typically scattershot, wandering all over the field, leaving a reasonable listener puzzled about what the takeaways are supposed to be…

“I think Joe Sixpack’s response is going to be a hearty shrug. After all that has emerged about Trump so far, his approval rating is closely tracking Obama’s approval at the same point in his presidency. To get Mr. Sixpack’s attention you are going to have to do better than this.”
Kyle Smith, National Review

President Trump should be happy. As much as Warren is articulate, obviously intelligent, and energetically supported by Democrats, she would also be far easier to defeat than Joe Biden… Considering Trump's economy, the president is well placed to defeat Warren.”
Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner

A libertarian's take

“Why did Modi pick this moment to do something so radical? Violence in Kashmir had been trending downwards for the last year, after all. The main reason, besides President Donald Trump's alarming offer to mediate a settlement, is that he wanted a distraction from India's mounting economic woes. India's GDP growth dropped from over 8 percent to 5.8 percent over the last year, and it is widely expected to dip further. Just as ominous has been the crash in consumer demand. India's usual problem has been an insufficient supply to meet its voracious appetite for vehicles, cell phones, and other similar goods. But sales figures for all consumer goods have posted a precipitous decline, slamming businesses that are dramatically scaling back investments.”
Shikha Dalmia, Reason

On the bright side...

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