By David G. Savage
Los Angeles Times
The Supreme Court dealt President Trump a major defeat Thursday by rejecting his claims of presidential immunity and upholding subpoenas from New York prosecutors seeking his tax returns and financial records.
In one of the most anticipated rulings on presidential privilege in years, the justices by a 7-2 vote ruled the nation’s chief executive is not above the law and must comply with legitimate demands from a grand jury in New York that was investigating Trump’s alleged hush money payments to two women who claimed to have had sex with him.
Trump had sued to block the subpoenas and claimed that as president he had an “absolute immunity” from demands for personal or confidential information.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority, rejected Trump’s claim of immunity.
“We reaffirm that principle today and hold that the president is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need.”
In a related case involving a similar subpoena from House investigators, the court also ruled the president did not have immunity. But justices vacated the House subpoenas, saying lower courts failed to properly balance the legal and constitutional questions raised by the request. They sent the matter back to lower courts for review.
Although the decisions were a defeat for Trump, there is a bright side for Trump. Chances are high that the details of his finances will still remain a secret from the public since grand juries operate confidentially and rarely leak. Had House investigators received Trump’s records, it would have been far more likely that some or all of the information would have leaked before the November election.
The election-year dispute had an obvious political significance, but it was also the rare separation of powers case in which the powers of the president, Congress and the judicial system were all at issue.
In past rulings on similar high-profile cases, the court had unanimously ruled that the president is not above the law, forcing President Nixon to hand over the Watergate tapes and President Clinton to be deposed in the Paula Jones harassment lawsuit.
Unlike other presidents since the Watergate era of the 1970s, Trump refused to disclose his tax returns and has kept secret the details of his business dealings. Investigators were particularly interested in whether Trump and his businesses were heavily indebted to foreign banks.
Trump said during the 2016 campaign he expected to release his tax returns, but then refused to do so.
After Democrats won control of the House in the 2018 midterm election, three separate committees —on oversight, intelligence and financial services — issued broad subpoenas to Trump’s accountants demanding records going back to 2010 on Trump’s personal and family finances. A subpoena to Deutsche Bank sought records on loans taken out by Trump and his organization.
Lawyers for the House said Congress has the power and duty to conduct oversight and investigations, including the chief executive. They said it was especially important to look further since Trump appeared to have far-flung business dealings that were hidden from the public. They said his finances could reveal if the president had conflict of interests, including business deals in Russia.
Separately, a New York grand jury was said to be looking into potential crimes involving Trump’s personal and business dealings there. It, too, issued a subpoena seeking his financial records.
Trump’s personal lawyers filed suits in New York and in Washington seeking to block the subpoenas. They argued that demands for records were extreme and unjustified, and that the president had an “absolute immunity” from investigators who sought personal and confidential information.
They lost in lower courts. Federal judges and the U.S. appeals courts in Washington and New York ruled the president, like other citizens, had no right to defy subpoenas for records issued by Congress or a grand jury .
In December, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Trump’s appeals and put the lower rulings on hold. The lead case involving the House committees was Trump vs Mazars USA, while the New York grand jury case was Trump vs. Vance.