Washington, D.C.

Supreme Court rules Trump cannot block release of financial records

Reporters gather outside the Supreme Court Building ahead of decisions Thursday
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Reporters gather outside the Supreme Court Building ahead of decisions Thursday

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for prosecutors in New York to see President Donald Trump’s financial records, a stunning defeat for Trump but a decision that probably means the records will be shielded from public scrutiny under grand jury secrecy rules until after the election, and perhaps indefinitely.

In a separate decision, the court ruled that Congress could not, at least for now, see many of the same records. The vote in both cases was 7-2. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote both majority opinions.

The court’s decision in favor of the New York prosecutors was a major statement on the scope and limits of presidential power, one that will take its place with landmark rulings that required President Richard Nixon to turn over tapes of Oval Office conversations and forced President Bill Clinton to provide evidence in a sexual harassment suit.

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In the case concerning the prosecutors’ subpoena, Roberts wrote that “no citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.” He added that Trump may still raise objections to the scope and relevance of the subpoena.

The court’s four more liberal members joined that majority opinion, and Trump’s two appointees, Justices Neil M. Gorsuch and Brett M. Kavanaugh, voted with the majority but did not adopt its reasoning.

In the case concerning congressional subpoenas, Roberts wrote that lower courts had not adequately considered the separation of powers concerns raised in the case. He was joined by the same justices who voted with him in the New York case.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented in both cases.

Trump immediately attacked the outcome on Twitter. “This is all a political prosecution.

“Courts in the past have given “broad deference”. BUT NOT ME!” he wrote.

Trump had asked the court to block both sets of subpoenas, which had sought information from Trump’s accountants and bankers, not from Trump himself; the firms have indicated that they would comply with the court’s ruling.

Trump’s lawyers had argued that he was immune from all criminal proceedings and investigations so long as he remained in office and that Congress was powerless to obtain his records because it had no legislative need for them.

Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Trump, portrayed the decisions as at least a temporary victory.

“We are pleased that in the decisions issued today, the Supreme Court has temporarily blocked both Congress and New York prosecutors from obtaining the President’s tax records,” he said in a statement. “We will now proceed to raise additional constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts.”

House Democrats and New York prosecutors said the records may shed light on Trump’s foreign entanglements, possible conflicts of interest, whether he has paid his taxes and whether his hush money payments violated campaign finance laws.

One of the cases concerned a subpoena to Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, from the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., a Democrat. It sought eight years of business and personal tax records in connection with an investigation of the role that Trump and the Trump Organization played in hush-money payments made in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Vance expressed satisfaction with the ruling in his favor. “This is a tremendous victory for our nation’s system of justice and its founding principle that no one — not even a president — is above the law,” he said in a statement. “Our investigation, which was delayed for almost a year by this lawsuit, will resume, guided as always by the grand jury’s solemn obligation to follow the law and the facts, wherever they may lead.”

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Both Trump and his company reimbursed the president’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael D. Cohen, for payments made to pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels, who claimed that she had an affair with Trump.

Cohen was also involved in payments to Karen McDougal, a Playboy model who had also claimed she had a relationship with Trump. The president has denied the relationships.

Trump sued to stop the accounting firm from turning over the records, but lower courts ruled against him. In a unanimous ruling, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in New York, said state prosecutors may require third parties to turn over a sitting president’s financial records for use in a grand jury investigation.

In a footnote to the decision, Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann, wrote that the information sought was in a sense unexceptional.

“We note that the past six presidents, dating back to President Carter, all voluntarily released their tax returns to the public,” Katzmann wrote. “While we do not place dispositive weight on this fact, it reinforces our conclusion that the disclosure of personal financial information, standing alone, is unlikely to impair the president in performing the duties of his office.”

Trump’s lawyers argued that he was immune from all criminal proceedings and investigations so long as he remained in office.

The Justice Department filed briefs supporting Trump but took a more measured position, saying that prosecutors should be forced to meet a demanding standard before they were allowed to obtain the information they sought.

Lawyers for Vance responded that the Supreme Court had already decided the central issue in the case in 1974 in United States v. Nixon, which required Nixon to disclose tapes of Oval Office conversations in response to a subpoena in a criminal case.

The second subpoena, also directed to the accounting firm, came from the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which is investigating the hush-money payments and whether Trump inflated and deflated descriptions of his assets on financial statements to obtain loans and reduce his taxes.

Trump’s lawyers argued that the committee was powerless to obtain his records because it had no legislative need for them. They said the panel was engaged in an improper criminal inquiry and was not seeking information to help it enact legislation.

Lawyers for the committee responded that they had a legitimate need for the information to fulfill their legislative and oversight responsibilities.

A divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia refused to block the subpoena.

The third set of subpoenas came from the House Financial Services and Intelligence Committees and were addressed to two financial institutions that did business with Trump, Deutsche Bank and Capital One. They sought an array of financial records related to the president, his companies and his family.

Daniel Hunter, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank, said it would comply with the courts’ ultimate decisions.

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“Deutsche Bank has demonstrated full respect for the U.S. legal process and remained neutral throughout these proceedings,” he said in a statement. “We will of course abide by a final decision by the courts.”

A different three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit ordered most of the requested materials to be disclosed. It made an exception for sensitive personal information unrelated to the committee’s investigations.

“The committees’ interests in pursuing their constitutional legislative function is a far more significant public interest than whatever public interest inheres in avoiding the risk of a chief executive’s distraction arising from disclosure of documents reflecting his private financial transactions,” Judge Jon O. Newman wrote for the majority.

The cases tested the independence of the Supreme Court, which is dominated by Republican appointees, including two named by Trump. In earlier Supreme Court cases in which presidents sought to avoid providing evidence, the rulings did not break along partisan lines.

To the contrary, the court was unanimous in ruling against Nixon and Clinton in such cases, with Nixon and Clinton appointees voting against the presidents who had placed them on the court. The Nixon case led to his resignation in the face of mounting calls for his impeachment. The Clinton case led to Clinton’s impeachment, though he survived a Senate vote on his removal.

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