When Donald Trump’s lawyers went to court Tuesday to keep his financial records shielded from Congress, their arguments met with some pretty tough skepticism from U.S. District Court Judge Amit Mehta.
“Does Congress have to do that?” Mehta asked of their argument that Congress had not identified a “legitimate legislative purpose” to investigate the president. “Do they have to identify a bill in advance? The Supreme Court has said the opposite.” The judge later wondered whether Watergate or Whitewater would have been investigated under the legal metric Trump’s lawyers were arguing.
Mehta’s ruling on Team Trump’s attempt to quash the congressional subpoena for Trump’s financial records won’t be coming this week, but it will still come far in advance of when Trump and his lawyers had hoped. Mehta fast-tracked consideration of the case, shaving weeks and likely months off overall consideration of the issue, much to the dismay of Trump’s lawyers. They have complained that Mehta isn’t giving their arguments a fair shake, based on the abbreviated schedule.
But Mehta’s posture in court Tuesday, along with his swift declaration last week that the case had been “fully briefed” and would proceed promptly, represents a major challenge to Team Trump’s legal strategy in a host of upcoming battles. Lawyers across the political spectrum have pretty much accepted that Trump’s legal arguments for uniformly blocking congressional subpoenas are extraordinarily weak. But the point was never to win on the merits; it was to stall investigative efforts by congressional Democrats until the clock ran out on them in 2020.
But if Tuesday’s first fight over Trump’s financial records turns out to represent a trend in how judges approach these cases, Trump’s attorneys will likely be facing an expedited schedule of hearings in which they are armed with exceedingly weak legal rationales. And Democrats don’t have to win every subpoena battle being mounted; they only have to win most of them in order to gain access to critical information.
Indeed, many pressing issues regarding presidential matters have been adjudicated quickly by the courts. The constitutional fight between George W. Bush and Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election wrapped up in just over a month—36 days—and that included two trips to the Supreme Court.
Former Watergate prosecutor Jill Wine-Banks has also noted how quickly the courts handled two crucial matters related to the investigation into Richard Nixon. Getting the underlying evidence prosecutors uncovered released to Congress took a total of 25 days. Additionally, obtaining Nixon’s tapes, the ultimate downfall of his presidency, through the courts took just over three months. “We subpoenaed tapes for trial on April 16, got rulings from trial court, Appeals Court and … Supreme Court ruled for us on July 24,” Wine-Banks wrote in a post. “Just over 2 weeks later, on Aug 9, Nixon resigned.”
If the bulk of the courts hearing Trump’s subpoena challenges move that rapidly, his entire legal strategy will unravel before our very eyes.