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Two key questions as Congress scrutinizes records from Trump's accountant

The New York attorney general's lawsuit against Donald Trump last week revealed new details about the former president's finances, but a Congressional probe could soon unveil additional documents that he's long been trying to shield from public view.

The accounting firm Mazars Group, which handled Trump’s account for decades, has handed over some of its documents to both Congress and the New York attorney general's office, potentially providing new revelations after six years of delay.

The documents from 2014-2018, which Mazars is providing to comply with a legal settlement, could shed light on potential conflicts of interest. More specifically, the documents might provide evidence of possible violations of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which bars federal elected officials from receiving money or gifts from foreign governments.

But two key questions loom. How much insight will these records provide? And is it too late to hold Trump accountable for conflicts when he was in office now that he's no longer president?

“All we get to see in the disclosure forms is the fact that the government official owns an interest in or controls this particular entity and then the entity's a black box,” says Richard Painter, who worked in the George W. Bush White House and sued to get these documents in 2017.

WILMINGTON, NC - SEPTEMBER 23: Former President Donald Trump arrives at a Save America Rally at the Aero Center Wilmington on September 23, 2022 in Wilmington, North Carolina. The
Former President Donald Trump at a rally in North Carolina on September 23. (Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

‘These records are only going to give you snapshots’

Aside from the possible opacity of the documents, Congressional investigators have to confront the reality that the Trump Organization might have given its accounting firm incorrect information.

“These records are only going to give you snapshots,” says Noah Bookbinder, president of the good-government group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. For example, he added, "If Saudi Arabia spends money at a Trump property, does that show up in bank records? It could under certain circumstances, but in a lot of cases it won't.”

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 22: Trump's accountant, Mazars USA, stands in Manhattan on February 22, 2021 in New York City. In a highly anticipated ruling, the Supreme Court has cleared the way for a New York prosecutor to obtain former President Donald Trump's tax returns. Trump has consistently argued that the subpoena issued by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance was overly broad and was issued in bad faith. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
The offices of Donald Trump's former accountant, Mazars USA, are located in Manhattan. In February, the Supreme Court has cleared the way for investigators to obtain the former President's records from the company. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In her court filing last week, New York Attorney General Letitia James also claimed that Trump and others "engaged in conduct intended to mislead Mazars in connection with its work compiling” their financial records. Mazars itself, in a letter disclosed earlier this year, said that it couldn’t vouch for the documents.

Still, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, the oversight committee chair, has suggested the documents could contain useful evidence against the former president.

“These documents will inform the Committee’s efforts to get to the bottom of former President Trump’s egregious conduct and ensure that future presidents do not abuse their position of power for personal gain,” she said in a statement in September after the committee won access to Trump’s records.

‘Wrongdoing that might still be able to be addressed’

The other issue hanging over this case is whether the documents have value now that Trump is out of the White House — especially given that the Emoluments Clause relates to elected officials.

By reaching the end of his term, Trump might have avoided most of his exposure to Emoluments violations even as many said his situation — with a Trump hotel hosting foreign delegations and his 2019 attempt to bring world leaders to his private Miami resort — constituted a blatant violation of the rules.

The Trump International Hotel is seen in Washington, U.S. September 28, 2020. REUTERS/Erin Scott
Seen here in 2020, the Trump International Hotel in Washington was a gathering place for Trump officials and outsiders seeking influence. The Trump Organization sold it's lease to the property earlier this year. (REUTERS/Erin Scott)

But the documents could still contain new surprises.

“A lot of times with financial records ... you just don't really know what kind of thing could be in there until they're in front of you,” Bookbinder notes.

For example, he noted that the records could contain evidence of crimes, which he notes for Trump "is far from out of the question.”

For her part, the New York attorney general says she'll make criminal referrals to the Department of Justice and Internal Revenue Service based on her civil investigation’s findings — though it’s unclear if the referrals are based on the Mazars documents.

The possibility of ‘just releasing parts of it to the public’

Perhaps the most likely consequence of the documents could be a renewed push to reform the rules regarding presidential financial disclosure. These rule changes would affect for future presidents, including Trump himself, if he runs and wins again.

Painter, the lawyer who worked for the George W. Bush White House, notes that documents could spur Congress into action in the years ahead. “They could be doing all of their business with the Chase Manhattan Bank, or they could be doing their business with Deutsche Bank, or they could be doing their business with a bank in Russia,” he says of Trump’s activities. “You don't know.”

U.S. Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) speaks during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on gun violence on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. June 8, 2022. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS
Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) is the chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, which is currently reviewing documents from Trump's accountants. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)

He's pushing to close what he calls a loophole that flags foreign money if it goes straight to an officeholder, but not if it goes to an entity controlled by that same officeholder.

Investigators on Capitol Hill meanwhile are also up against a possible end of the year deadline with Republicans expected to take control of the House of Representatives in November.

“I think it is important for this committee to move as quickly as possible,” Bookbinder says. “Whether that is a hearing, whether that is a report or some combination thereof, or just releasing parts of it to the public.”

In a statement to Yahoo Finance, Mazars declined to offer any further information about the documents and its relationship with the Trump organization, but said it's committed to fulfilling its professional and legal obligations. Likewise, the House Oversight Committee declined to comment on how many documents had been received and whether they would ever be revealed to the public.

For his part, Trump has repeatedly dismissed probes from James and others as a political "witch hunt."

Ben Werschkul is a Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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