WASHINGTON — President Trump’s accounting firm must comply with a House committee’s demands for eight years of his financial records, a federal appeals court panel ruled on Friday in a major victory for House Democrats in their struggle against his vow to stonewall “all” of their oversight subpoenas.
In a 66-page ruling, the panel rejected Mr. Trump’s argument that Congress had no legitimate legislative authority to seek his business records from the firm, Mazars USA, because the committee was trying to determine whether he broke existing laws — not weighing whether to enact a new one.
“Having considered the weighty issues at stake in this case, we conclude that the subpoena issued by the committee to Mazars is valid and enforceable,” wrote Judge David S. Tatel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.
Mr. Trump is virtually certain to appeal the ruling, either to the full Court of Appeals or to the Supreme Court. But the decision — affirming an earlier ruling by a Federal District Court judge — was the first test at the appeals court level of the Trump legal team’s sweeping challenges to the constitutional authority of Congress to conduct oversight of his activities.
Judge Tatel was joined by Judge Patricia A. Millett in the majority of the three-judge ruling. Both were appointed by Democratic presidents.
Judge Neomi Rao, a former Trump administration official whom Mr. Trump appointed to the bench in March, dissented, saying she would have quashed the subpoena as exceeding the House’s legislative powers.
Representative Elijah E. Cummings, the Democratic chairman of the oversight committee, hailed the appeals court’s decision. “Today’s ruling is a fundamental and resounding victory for congressional oversight, our constitutional system of checks and balances and the rule of law,” he said in a statement. “For far too long, the president has placed his personal interests over the interests of the American people.”
Lawyers for Mr. Trump were reviewing the decision, said one, Jay Sekulow. “We continue to believe that this subpoena is not a legitimate exercise of Congress’s legislative authority,” he said. Sarah E. Sutton, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, declined to comment on the ruling.
The scope of Congress’s power to compel the production of information — and the president’s power to keep information secret — has emerged as a recurring battleground between House Democrats and Mr. Trump, whose legal team has put forth novel legal arguments in carrying out his vow to systematically defy House subpoena
This week, Mr. Trump’s White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, sent a letter to the House declaring that the administration would not cooperate with the House’s impeachment inquiry, such as by providing documents or permitting witnesses to testify.
The Trump legal team has separately argued that Mr. Trump’s current and former White House aides are absolutely immune from subpoenas for their testimony — meaning they would not even have to show up — and that Congress lacks legitimate legislative authority to scrutinize potential wrongdoing in the executive branch.
The appeals court ruling on Friday centered on that third argument, and it was in some respects already obsolete because the premise of the argument was that the House was relying only on its routine legislative and oversight authorities, rather than any extra investigative powers that lawmakers gain when engaged in an impeachment inquiry.
But since the Mazars case started going through the courts, the House Judiciary Committee and Speaker Nancy Pelosi have declared that the chamber is conducting an impeachment inquiry. The Trump administration has disputed that premise, since the full House has not voted for a resolution approving such an investigation.
Friday’s ruling did not address the question of whether an impeachment inquiry is underway — and, if so, whether that matters. The majority on the panel ruled for the House without any need to invoke its impeachment powers.
Specifically, the fight centered on whether the House Oversight and Reform Committee had the authority to compel Mazars to turn over Mr. Trump’s financial records as part of its routine legislative and oversight powers, even if the committee’s purpose was in part to determine whether Mr. Trump committed crimes.
The committee, led by Mr. Cummings, issued the subpoena after it came to light that Mr. Trump had failed to list on his ethics disclosure forms a debt that he owed and then repaid to his former lawyer and fixer, Michael D. Cohen, for paying hush money to a pornographic actress just before the 2016 election to keep quiet about an affair she claimed to have had with Mr. Trump. He has denied the relationship.
Mr. Cohen also testified before Congress that Mr. Trump routinely changed the value of his assets for different financial purposes, like inflating their value for loan applications but deflating them for taxes. (Mr. Cohen was separately convicted of lying to Congress in earlier testimony.)
In making the request for documents and then issuing the subpoena, Mr. Cummings said that Congress was trying to determine whether the president had broken laws, but he also said that lawmakers were trying to decide whether to update financial disclosure laws.
Mr. Trump’s legal team, which sued Mazars to obtain a court order blocking it from complying with the subpoena, argued that this meant the committee was effectively trying to carry out a criminal investigation. That, they asserted, was an executive branch job, not a legislative one, and so the House’s subpoena was invalid.
But Judge Tatel wrote that Supreme Court precedent granted broad authority to Congress to issue subpoenas for information that could be used to enact new laws — even if it could also be useful as criminal evidence — and imposed no requirement on lawmakers to say that legislation was their specific purpose. In any case, he also wrote, Mr. Cummings had made reference to investigating whether new legislation was necessary.
“We conclude that the public record reveals legitimate legislative pursuits, not an impermissible law enforcement purpose, behind the committee’s subpoena,” he wrote.
Judge Rao disagreed. Lawyers for the House, led by their counsel Douglas Letter, had relied only on the House’s normal oversight powers in support of the subpoena, she noted, arguing that permitting lawmakers to pursue such information without an impeachment inquiry would make it too easy to harass the presidency.
“When the House chooses to investigate the president for alleged violations of the laws and the Constitution, it must proceed through impeachment, an exceptional and solemn exercise of judicial power established as a separate check on public officials,” she wrote.
But Judge Rao did not address the House Democrats’ more recent assertions that they are, in fact, already conducting an impeachment inquiry — nor the Trump administration’s claims that there is no such inquiry for legal purposes.
In a letter to Democrats celebrating the ruling, Ms. Pelosi wrote: “The president’s actions threaten our national security, violate our Constitution and undermine the integrity of our elections. No one is above the law. The president will be held accountable.”