WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the Manhattan district attorney’s demand for President Donald Trump’s tax returns, but kept a hold on Trump’s financial records that Congress has been seeking for more than a year.
The outcome in the two cases is at least a short-term victory for Trump, who has strenuously sought to keep his financial records private.
But the justices rejected arguments by Trump’s lawyers and the Justice Department that the president is immune from investigation while he holds office or that a prosecutor must show a greater need than normal to obtain the records. The tax returns are being sought as part of a grand-jury investigation.
Because the grand jury process is confidential, the rulings make it likely that none of Trump’s financial records will become public soon.
Trump’s two high court appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, joined the majority in both cases along with Chief Justice John Roberts and the four liberal justices. Roberts wrote both opinions.
"Congressional subpoenas for information from the President, however, implicate special concerns regarding the separation of powers. The courts below did not take adequate account of those concerns," Roberts wrote in the congressional case.
The ruling returns the case to lower courts, with no clear prospect for when the case might ultimately be resolved. The tax returns case also is headed back to a lower court.
The fight over the congressional subpoenas has significant implications regarding a president’s power to refuse a formal request from Congress. In a separate fight at the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., over a congressional demand for the testimony of former White House counsel Don McGahn, the administration is making broad arguments that the president’s close advisers are “absolutely immune” from having to appear.
In two earlier cases over presidential power, the Supreme Court acted unanimously in requiring President Richard Nixon to turn over White House tapes to the Watergate special prosecutor and in allowing a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton to go forward.
In those cases, three Nixon appointees and two Clinton appointees, respectively, voted against the president who chose them for the high court. A fourth Nixon appointee, William Rehnquist, sat out the tapes case because he had worked closely as a Justice Department official with some of the Watergate conspirators whose upcoming trial spurred the subpoena for the Oval Office recordings.
The subpoenas are not directed at Trump himself. Instead, House committees want records from Deutsche Bank, Capital One and the Mazars USA accounting firm. Mazars also is the recipient of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s subpoena.
Appellate courts in Washington, D.C., and New York brushed aside the president’s arguments in decisions that focused on the fact that the subpoenas were addressed to third parties asking for records of Trump’s business and financial dealings as a private citizen, not as president.
Two congressional committees subpoenaed the bank documents as part of their investigations into Trump and his businesses. Deutsche Bank has been one of the few banks willing to lend to Trump after a series of corporate bankruptcies and defaults starting in the early 1990s.
Vance and the House Oversight and Reform Committee sought records from Mazars concerning Trump and his businesses based on payments that Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, arranged to keep two women from airing their claims of decade-old extramarital affairs with Trump during the 2016 presidential race.