What do Presidents Donald Trump and James Buchanan have in common?
This is a legal, not political, question.
Answer: Both presidents argued that investigations of their administrations by the House of Representatives had no legitimate legislative purpose.
But a Republican committee did investigate Democrat Buchanan and found multiple instances of administrative corruption. To avoid a more targeted investigation of his financial dealings, Republican Trump has appealed last week’s judicial ruling that allows a congressional committee to seek records from an accounting firm Trump employed.
U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta, of the District of Columbia, drew a parallel between the Buchanan and Trump arguments in his May 20 ruling — the first court decision in House Democrats’ multi-pronged effort to obtain Trump’s tax returns and other financial records.
Mehta cited the Buchanan protest in an introduction to his 41-page decision. He later mentioned legal battles Presidents Nixon and Clinton waged with Congress over release of executive information.
In March 1860, in the last year of Buchanan’s presidency, the House of Representatives formed a committee, chaired by Republican John Covode, to investigate potential crimes of the Democratic Party and the president. Buchanan vigorously protested. Mehta began his opinion by quoting that protest.
Buchanan said the House committee’s proceedings violated the independence of the executive branch and “are calculated to foster a band of interested parasites and informers, ever ready, for their own advantage, to swear before ex parte committees to pretended private conversations between the President and themselves, incapable, from their nature, of being disproved; thus furnishing material for harassing him, degrading him in the eyes of the country....”
Buchanan maintained that the House had no power to investigate him except when sitting as an impeaching body. He added he feared a freewheeling investigation “would establish a precedent dangerous and embarrassing to all my successors. ...”
Mehta said Trump has followed Buchanan’s line of reasoning to protest the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s subpoena for records to Mazars USA LLP, the firm that has provided accounting services to Trump.
Mehta disagreed with Trump’s argument for two reasons: the judge said the accounting records would aid the committee’s consideration of strengthening ethics and disclosure laws; and they would assist in monitoring Trump’s compliance with the Foreign Emoluments Clauses (which prohibit federal officeholders from accepting anything of value from a foreign country).
Later in the opinion, Mehta maintained that “it is simply not fathomable that a Constitution that grants Congress the power to remove a President for reasons including criminal behavior would deny Congress the power to investigate him for unlawful conduct — past or present — even without formally opening an impeachment inquiry.”
How this will play out between Trump and the House — in this and other cases in which the House has sought information and the administration has refused to provide it — will be determined by future court decisions.
We know how it ended for James Buchanan. While he is generally regarded as one of the nation’s worst presidents because he tilted toward the South before the Civil War, Buchanan also presided over one of the most corrupt administrations. Covode’s committee documented multiple instances of fraud and abuse of power.
Worst of all, both Republicans and Democrats, for different reasons, represented Buchanan to the public “as a willing tool of the slave power, ready to use the public treasure to crush votes for freedom,” according to Buchanan biographer Philip S. Klein.
President Buchanan challenged the House to impeach him. When that did not happen, he claimed “my vindication is complete.”
President Trump already has declared vindication — based on an inconclusive special prosecutor’s report — even as congressional investigations are only beginning.
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Wednesday. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com.
For more Scribbler columns: