Justices to take up dispute over subpoenas for Donald Trump’s financial records

The court also will decide whether a Manhattan District Attorney can obtain eight years of the President’s tax returns as part of an ongoing criminal investigation.

Published - December 14, 2019 05:20 am IST - WASHINGTON

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

The Supreme Court said Friday it will hear President Donald Trump’s pleas to keep his tax, bank and financial records private, a major confrontation between the President and Congress that also could affect the 2020 Presidential campaign.

Arguments will take place in late March, and the Justices, acting unusually quickly, are poised to issue decisions in June as Mr. Trump is campaigning for a second term. Rulings against the President could result in the quick release of personal financial information that Mr. Trump has sought strenuously to keep private.

The court also will decide whether the Manhattan District Attorney can obtain eight years of the President’s tax returns as part of an ongoing criminal investigation. The subpoenas are separate from the ongoing impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump, headed for a vote in the full House next week. Indeed, it’s almost certain the court won’t hear the cases until after a Senate trial over whether to remove Mr. Trump has ended.

The High Court arguments will test the limits of presidential accountability, shining a spotlight on Mr. Trump’s arguments that he couldn’t be prosecuted or investigated during his term as President even if he were to shoot someone on New York’s 5th Avenue, as he once said during the 2016 campaign. He also is challenging Congress’ broad authority to launch investigations.

The President sued to prevent banks and accounting firms from complying with subpoenas for his records from three committees of the House of Representatives and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.

In three separate cases, he has so far lost at every step, but the records have not been turned over pending a final court ruling. Now it will be up to a court that includes two Trump appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, to decide in a case with significant implications regarding a President’s power to refuse a formal request from Congress.

Nixon and Clinton

In two earlier cases over presidential power, the Justices 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 President Bill 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.

In none of the cases are the subpoenas directed at Mr. Trump himself. Instead, House committees want records from Deutsche Bank and Capital One, as well as the Mazars USA accounting firm. Mazars also is the recipient of Vance’s subpoena. In each case, Mr. Vance and House Democrats have argued there is no compelling legal issue at stake, since they are seeking records from third parties, not Mr. Trump himself.

A case of firsts: Trump

But the President said in his appeals that the cases are the first time congressional and local criminal investigators have tried to pry free a President’s records to investigate wrongdoing. “This is a case of firsts,” Trump’s lawyers told the justices about congressional demands for Trump’s financial records from Mazars.

The Vance case represents the first time in American history that a “state or local prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation of the President,” the lawyers wrote. Appellate courts in Washington, D.C., and New York brushed aside the Trump arguments in decisions that focused on the subpoenas being addressed to third parties and 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 their investigations into Mr. Trump and his businesses. Deutsche Bank has been one for the few banks willing to lend to Trump after a series of corporate bankruptcies and defaults starting in the early 1990s. Mr. Vance and the House Oversight and Reform Committee sought records from Mazars concerning Trump and his businesses based on payments that Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, arranged to keep two women from airing their claims of affairs with Trump during the presidential race.

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