President Trump asks Supreme Court to shield tax returns from investigators
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to shield him from a New York grand jury’s demand to see his tax returns and other financial records, setting the stage for a constitutional clash over whether the president has an “absolute immunity” from being investigated or prosecuted.
It is the first of two appeals from Trump that seek to protect his tax returns from investigators. The House Oversight Committee has been seeking the same records, and on Wednesday, the full U.S. appeals court in Washington refused to block the subpoena. Trump’s lawyers said they would appeal that case as well.
The justices are not required to hear Trump’s appeal or to decide the cases. But the pair of appeals when put together raise significant questions about the separation of powers and whether the president has a privacy right to shield his personal records from congressional investigators or state prosecutors.
If the justices vote to hear Trump’s plea, it could result in a major election-year ruling on whether a president is above the law while in office.
The Supreme Court has never before said the president was immune or shielded from all investigations while in office. However, the Constitution says the president may be removed from office only through impeachment by the House and a conviction in the Senate.
The New York prosecutors who sought the tax returns are expected to file a response within 10 days. Meanwhile, Trump’s lawyers are expected to move quickly to appeal the ruling involving House investigators. The justices may take some time to decide on what to do.
The New York probe does not concern Trump’s actions as president. Rather,
District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is said to be investigating “hush-money” payments to two women, one a porn star and other a former Playboy model. As part of its investigation, the grand jury sought eight years of the Trump Organization’s financial records from Mazars USA, its accounting firm, including Trump’s personal tax returns.
Even if the grand jury’s subpoena is upheld and Mazars complies with the order, it does not mean Trump’s tax returns will be made public. The grand jury operates under a rule of confidentiality.
Nonetheless, Trump’s lawyers went to federal court, seeking to block the order while the president is in office. William Consovoy, a private attorney for Trump, relied on what he called a “temporary absolute presidential immunity.” In response to a question from one lower court judge, the attorney argued last month that Trump should be shielded from answering questions even if the president shot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York. During the campaign, Trump once famously said he was so popular among his base that he could shot someone on Fifth Avenue and not lose support.
A federal district judge and a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court flatly rejected the claim of immunity. The judges pointed out that beginning with Thomas
Jefferson in 1807, presidents have been required to respond to court orders seeking documents. In the most famous case, President Richard Nixon was required by the Supreme Court in a unanimous 1974 decision to turn over to prosecutors his White House tape recordings.
President Bill Clinton was required to answer questions under oath in response to a civil suit over a sexual harassment claim. He too had suffered unanimous defeat at the Supreme Court in 1997 when he sought a temporary immunity while in office.
Citing the example of Nixon’s Oval Office conversations, the 2nd Circuit Court said Trump and his lawyers failed to “explain why, if executive privilege did not preclude enforcement of the subpoena issued in Nixon, the Mazars subpoena must be enjoined despite seeking no privileged information and bearing no relation to the president’s performance of his official functions.”
Justice Department lawyers have long maintained the president is not subject to criminal prosecution while on office. The Supreme Court has not ruled directly on that issue.
President Donald Trump arrives to deliver remarks in the East Room of the White House in Washington on Nov. 6.