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WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress want to know if President Trump lied about his finances to obtain business loans or insurance coverage, or to the IRS.
Soon, they may get their chance to find out.
On Tuesday, Trump’s lawyers and the House Oversight Committee squared off in court over Trump’s lawsuit to stop his longtime accountant, Mazars USA, from handing over records that some financial experts believe could be more revealing than his tax returns.
But this courtroom battle is about a lot more than just Trump’s secretive finances. A speedy win for House Democrats would blow a big hole in Trump’s strategy of stonewalling and delaying the 20-odd congressional investigations into his administration, family and fortune. That includes everything from the Mueller report to Trump’s tax returns.
“The White House strategy has been to delay, and take it all past the election,” said Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond specializing in the federal court system.
The judge overseeing the case threw a wrench in that plan, however, by announcing he intended to speed things up and try to get it all done in one day.
“This judge has opened up the possibility that the courts won’t participate in delay for delay’s sake,” Tobias said.
On the surface, however, the case is all about Trump’s money.
Democrats are demanding eight years of financial records from Trump’s longtime accounting firm that could reveal a rich and detailed portrait of Trump’s financial history — including, possibly, any wrongdoing at Trump’s business, according to Martin J. Sheil, who served over 30 years as an investigator at the IRS.
“Accountants are often a key, if not they key, witnesses from a documentary standpoint,” Sheil told VICE News.
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee subpoenaed Mazars USA in April, seeking documents relating to Trump’s past financial statements. Trump, soon after, filed a lawsuit to stop them.
“If what Michael Cohen told Congress was accurate, then it sounds like there’s a real possibility that Mazars’ records might hold documentary evidence of fraud.”
Congressional investigators have been eager to have a look at Mazars’ files ever since Trump’s former attorney and fixer, Michael Cohen, testified before Congress that Trump misleadingly presented the size of his fortune when it suited his interests — either when applying for a loan, seeking insurance coverage or paying his taxes.
If that happened, it might have been criminal, depending on the details, former prosecutors and legal experts have told VICE News. Presenting false financial statements to a bank in pursuit of a loan could be bank fraud, for example. Lying to the IRS to reduce tax payments, by contrast, could be tax fraud.
“If what Michael Cohen told Congress was accurate, then it sounds like there’s a real possibility that Mazars’ records might hold documentary evidence of fraud,” Sheil said.
Trump’s lawyers have responded to the threat of Mazars’ pending records release by blasting Cohen as a “convicted liar,” whose testimony amounted to a political stunt. Cohen previously pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about Trump’s efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 election, falsely saying that it all stopped months before the effort really ended.
But this time Cohen claimed to have receipts, handing over a series of financial statements that were compiled, but not verified, by Mazars. The files appear to contain what The Washington Post has catalogued as a series of inaccuracies, such as adding 10 extra stories to the height of Trump Tower in Manhattan.
The documents in question also contain lengthy disclaimers that specify they were not compiled according to standard accounting practices. And those preambles alone should have been enough to keep any real financial professional from taking them seriously, according to Kyle Welch, a professor of accountancy at George Washington University.
“They’re humorous, because they’re not based on basic accounting rules,” Welch told VICE News. “These are the only financial statements I’ve ever seen that look primarily like a promotional document. They appear to have been intended for unsophisticated readers.”
Now, as lawyers for Trump and the House Oversight Committee duke it out in court, it remains to be seen how damaging the contents of Mazars’ vaults might be for Trump.
Breaking the blockade
Beneath the surface, however, this case could spell bigger problems for Trump than the release of some unsightly financial records.
In fact, a quick resolution in this case could signal that other pending disputes between the White House and Congress will, likewise, get moved along into resolution within weeks or months — rather than get kicked past the election.
“For the White House, delay is seen as a victory, so long as it takes them past the election.”
Trump is blocking more than 20 separate probes led by Democrats, according to a recent tally by The Washington Post. Trump is also suing to stop Democrats from gaining access to files from his longtime lender, Deutsche Bank, and defying a subpoena from Democrats asking to review his tax returns.
Slow-walking any dispute through the court system appears to be central to his defiance, said Tobias.
“For the White House, delay is seen as a victory, so long as it takes them past the election,” Tobias said.
That strategy has pushed Democrats into a corner, forcing them to choose between launching impeachment proceedings or focusing their attention on the 2020 election. The former would grant their requests more legal force, but could also prove politically perilous.
That is, unless, these courtroom battles resolve themselves at a faster rate than expected.
Which makes the mere fact that Judge Mehta, who is overseeing the Mazars suit, ordered everything to be sped up to lightning speed — and to be potentially resolved after just one day in court — so important. Not only does it advance a key inquest for Democrats, it could set a precedent that might let other court cases proceed faster than has been widely anticipated.
On Tuesday, Judge Mehta indicated he planned to move quickly. While he said he would not issue a ruling from the bench, he quipped, “we’re not going to drag this out,” according to a reporter for Courthouse News present at the proceedings.
Judge Mehta’s approach could indicate what role other judges overseeing other disputes between Trump and Congress will play as House Democrats seek to pry information and witnesses from a defiant president.
“Judges have plenty of discretion to advance their cases if they feel that doing so allows for justice to be done,” said Tobias. “We don’t yet know how many other judges will follow this example. But there certainly lots of copy-cats in the federal system when it comes to procedure.”
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks during a celebration of military mothers with first lady Melania Trump in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Friday, May 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)