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President Trump has opened a new front in his power struggle with Democrats in Congress. But instead of taking legal action against his political adversaries, he's suing the very banks that he's done business with. He filed suit in federal court yesterday to stop the banks from turning over records to two House committees that are looking into his family's financial affairs. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Earlier this month, House investigators looking into Trump's ties to foreign governments issued subpoenas to Deutsche Bank and other financial institutions. Trump's lawyers say the subpoenas amount to a huge fishing expedition reaching far into the past. Trump's son Eric told Fox News this morning that Democrats were going after his entire family.
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ERIC TRUMP: It's not just my father. It's, Eric, I want to see all your bank records. I want to know how much, you know, Lara spent on baby formula for Luke. I want to know what - you know, how many beers Tiffany had on a Friday afternoon in Georgetown.
ZARROLI: Eric Trump is one of the plaintiffs in the suit, as is his sister Ivanka and brother Don Jr., not to mention the Trump organization itself. The suit asks the court to bar Deutsche Bank and Capital One from turning over any financial records about the Trump family or its company. Deutsche Bank in particular was one of the few major banks to lend money to Trump after his casinos went bankrupt in the early 1990s. And congressional investigators are eager to look into its ties to the president. A court order blocking the subpoenas would stop the investigation in its tracks or at least sideline it for a while.
LAURIE LEVENSON: Well, I think what it's likely to do at this stage is slow things down.
ZARROLI: But Laurie Levenson of Loyola Law School says it won't stop the investigation for good. She says the courts are unlikely to side with Trump in the long run.
LEVENSON: I think the president is fully aware that down the road, the court will allow some of these subpoenas, especially the ones that focus on him and his transactions.
ZARROLI: Federal courts have traditionally given Congress broad authority to investigate and have been reluctant to intervene when Congress issues a subpoena, says Harvard Law School professor Noah Feldman.
NOAH FELDMAN: And as early as 1821, the Supreme Court said, yes, Congress has the essential power to do investigations and to subpoena people and even to hold them in contempt because that's essential to being a legislator.
ZARROLI: Feldman says the Supreme Court upheld that power in 1975.
FELDMAN: The courts basically said, this is up to the Congress. They do what they want to do. We don't get involved.
ZARROLI: Democrats called Trump's lawsuit yesterday meritless. California Congressman Adam Schiff, who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, told The Washington Post today that Trump's lawsuit is part of an overall effort to curb the power of the legislative branch. First, Trump declared an emergency so he could spend money on a border wall with Mexico. Schiff said that was an attack on Congress's power of the purse.
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ADAM SCHIFF: Now he is going at Congress again to try to undermine one of our other most important powers and responsibilities. And that is the responsibility of oversight.
ZARROLI: To Noah Feldman, Trump and his attorneys may be playing a long game. They may be hoping they can persuade the Supreme Court to step in and strike down or, at least, restrict the subpoenas. But that may take a while. And in the meantime, lower courts are likely to side with Congress. And Feldman says without a court order to the contrary, big banks may have no choice but to comply with Congress's demands. That means giving investigators the records they want.
FELDMAN: Every bank is subject to intense federal regulation. And ignoring an explicit demand from Congress is not a good idea if you're a regulated entity.
ZARROLI: Deutsche Bank in particular has repeatedly run afoul of bank regulators over financial crimes such as money laundering. And the bank has made clear it's willing to cooperate with investigators and comply with any court order it receives.
Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
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