NEW YORK — A federal appeals court in New York indicated Friday that it will take a hard look at the legality of congressional subpoenas seeking President Donald Trump's banking records after a lawyer for the president argued the request was too broad.
Three judges on the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals questioned lawyers for the president and Congress at a hearing on Trump's appeal of a lower court's ruling that the subpoenas serve a legitimate legislative purpose and are valid.
The most contentious exchange in a 90-minute hearing came when judges confronted lawyers for the recipients of the subpoenas — Deutsche Bank and Capital One — and asked whether they have Trump's tax returns among their records.
Both lawyers said they could not say publicly, prompting Circuit Judge Peter W. Hall to sarcastically ask whether the appeals court, which is just beneath the U.S. Supreme Court, needed to go to a court to seek an order to get the answer. The judges then gave the banks two days to respond in writing.
At one point in the hearing, a man and a woman rose and stood quietly in the back of the courtroom, holding up signs that were taken away by courthouse personnel. One sign read: "Uphold the Constitution. Stop the Obstruction."
The House Financial Services and Intelligence committees had asked Deutsche Bank and Capital One to turn over records related to Trump's business ventures as they investigate "foreign influence in the U.S. political process."
Trump is challenging the subpoenas along with three of his children, contending they did not serve a legislative purpose and they were overbroad.
Trump's lawyer, Patrick Strawbridge, said their real objective seemed to be for improper purposes.
He said congressional committees were seeking to learn "every Diet Coke that a teenager bought using a debit card."
Attorney Douglas Letter, representing Congress, said the subpoenas are part of a broad probe aimed at learning if foreign countries including Russia are laundering money through U.S. banks as part of a wider campaign to create "highly dangerous foreign influence over the highest levels" of U.S. government.
He said the Trump-related subpoenas are getting lots of attention because of his high profile but to suggest that the focus of the investigation is "only Trump, it's a lie."
Letter said it was necessary to obtain many of Trump's and his family's financial records at two banks because he has run a small family business with lots of intersecting parts.
"We're not dealing with Ford Motor Company," he said.
Circuit Judge Debra Ann Livingston said she believed the congressional subpoenas were the first of their kind.
She said it made her want to "seriously consider" Justice Department arguments that the Constitution's separation of powers between branches of government requires that the scope of the subpoenas be narrowed.
Circuit Judge Jon O. Newman said the appeals court has options beyond approving or rejecting the subpoenas.
The court did not immediately rule.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Judge Edgardo Ramos said it was not a tough decision to allow the subpoenas to proceed, saying Trump and his companies were "highly unlikely" to succeed in challenging them.