By Sean Gray
June 1, 2020
The Supreme Court is set to determine the fate of Donald Trump’s taxes case by session’s end in late June. Condensed into one case for the sake of expediency are lawsuits filed on the president’s behalf against subpoenas from the House of Representatives and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Congress has subpoenaed documents, including Trump’s tax returns from his financial institutions. Manhattan’s DA sent a grand jury subpoena to two of Trump’s banks as part of an ongoing investigation into financial crimes by the eponymous organization.
Trump’s lawyers have argued that Congress’ request serve no legitimate legislative purpose. As for the NY subpoena, his lawyers have made the audacious claim that a sitting president has immunity from investigation. Neither argument has held up in three lower or appeals courts. The decision of the justices promise to have far-reaching consequences. The ideologically divided court found flaw in the cases presented by both sides when arguments were held last month. A reversal of the previous court’s decision threatens to pull the country in a decidedly dictatorial direction.
Right or wrong, Congress has had its eye on Trump since he took office. He ascended the presidency amid foreign election interference and has been accused of myriad dirty dealings. His supporters have long viewed this oversight as bitter harassment. His lawyer’s arguments fall along those lines. To prevent their clients tax returns from seeing the light of day, Trump’s legal team have argued that the subpoenas are politically motivated and lack legitimate legislative purpose. History is not on their side. Precedent dictates Congress may legislate wherever it is needed.
The subpoenas issued by the Manhattan DA are more like a straightforward criminal investigation. They were originally served by the federal court’s Southern New York district, who moved on from the case at the request of the Justice Department. Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan prosecutor and named plaintiff in the case, took the reins. Also issued in the wake of Michael Cohen’s testimony, the subpoenas seek eight years of tax returns from Trump and the organization that bears his family name. Trump’s lawyer’s arguments against the subpoenas posits that a president is shielded even from investigation while holding office. Like so much that has been said in defense of the indefensible in the last four years, this is dangerous nonsense. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both made sweeping claims of executive privilege when they found themselves in legal hot water. Nixon claimed the tapes Watergate prosecutors wanted in charging presidential aides fell under executive privilege. Clinton argued he was immune from a civil lawsuit for sexual harassment while in office. Both president’s lost their court battles. The president may be immune from litigation which would pull focus from his enormous responsibilities, but none has been ruled above the law. A deviation from precedent would place Trump exactly there. Given his proclivity for law-breaking and lack of accountability, it’s frightening to imagine how Trump might respond having that status conferred upon him.
The legal challenges mounted by the president’s attorneys are likely to fail. At this juncture it would take a remarkable reversal of decades of precedent to allow Trump to keep his records private. While the legal legitimacy of the subpoenas are at issue in court, the political ramifications cannot be ignored. The impact of the case may well depend on timing. When the Supreme Court adjourns for the summer, they’re under no obligation to render a final verdict and may elect to send the case back to a lower court for re-deliberation or in search of the a ‘’limiting principle’’ to justify any restraint on Congressional oversight. Such a move would have little effect on the case’s ultimate outcome, but would delay its conclusion until after the election. It could in fact, render the court’s decision moot
Voters in a functioning democracy ought to know whether a candidate was engaged in ongoing criminal behavior prior to casting a ballot. They should also know if the ‘’successful businessman’’ running for office has any entanglements, foreign or domestic which may represent a conflict of interest. A releasing of Trump’s tax returns will enable voters to make an informed judgment about this matter. Smart money says Trump will have to produce some, or all of the documents requested of him. More pressing is what, if any impact the decision may have on the 2020 election.