Supreme Court divided over Trump’s tax and bank records
May 13 2020
The Supreme Court waded uneasily Tuesday in a politically-charged fight over executive accountability as they held oral arguments in cases dealing with subpoenas of President Trump's personal tax and financial records. In the House case, it's not clear whether that would leave Democrats with any chance of seeing Trump's tax returns or other financial documents before the election.
Mr Trump's private lawyers argue he enjoys total immunity while in office. Even if Trump shot someone on New York's Fifth Avenue, prosecutors would be powerless to act while he was still in office, his lawyers argued before losing at a lower court.
Trump, unlike other recent presidents, has declined to release his tax returns and other financial records that could shed light on his net worth and the activities of his family real-estate company, the Trump Organization.
The Supreme Court has a 5-4 majority including two justices appointed by Trump.
What are the cases about?
Trump attorneys then applied for a stay last fall, arguing that the House lacks authority to issue subpoenas for any objective other than writing laws.
In the first case, the justices will hear a challenge from Trump's attorneys to block a subpoena from the House oversight committee that requests Trump's tax returns from the accounting firm Mazars USA.
The subpoenas seek to investigate the president's past dealings with foreign businesses, including transactions potentially linked to Iran and Russian Federation, to determine whether they violated the law. "He couldn't cite a particular standard for what would in any way constrain or constrict Congress from simply going on fishing expeditions and asking for medical records, et cetera". Mazars also is the recipient of the subpoena from the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.
Between the lines: Congressional investigations must have a "legislative purpose" and can't be an exercise in law enforcement. The committee said it wanted to find out whether illegal actions had taken place.
The justices queried Trump's lawyer, Patrick Strawbridge, about whether lawmakers can ever subpoena a president's financial records.
"This might go away if they decide it on narrow grounds", Joseph said.
The two committees issued 12-page subpoenas in April 2019 requiring Deutsche Bank to hand over the banking records of Trump, his children and his businesses.
Roberts also seemed sceptical of arguments by a House lawyer, Doug Letter, that legislators have broad authority to investigate a president for the goal of writing laws.
President Donald Trump walks on the colonnade to speak about the coronavirus during a press briefing in the Rose Garden of the White House, Monday, May 11, 2020, in Washington.
Indeed Trump is facing a multitude of subpoenas, even if they were not served on him directly. The lower courts rejected Trump's attacks on the subpoenas' legitimacy, prompting Trump to appeal them to the Supreme Court late past year.
When it was her turn for questions, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave Letter an opportunity to opine on the difference between using a subpoena to harass a president and using one for the consideration of legislation.
The discussion on the call was amiable enough, with one of the lawyers referring to the others as his "friends".
Some suggest that the main takeaway here is that this case is a closer call for SCOTUS than many have assumed.
The liberal justices clearly want to rein him in and restrict the power of the office.
Will the Supreme Court Dodge the Cases?
Chief Justice John Roberts anxious openly that the House committees are claiming a "limitless" ability to request private documents of a sitting president.
Trump's lawyers claimed that the Constitution protects the presidency from harassment by lawmakers of an opposing political party.
"Your test is not much of a test".
Liberal Justice Elena Kagan told Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow, who also represented Trump in the impeachment hearings in January, that a "fundamental precept of our constitutional order is that the president is not above the law".
The cases resemble earlier disputes over presidents' assertions that they were too consumed with the job of running the country to worry about lawsuits and investigations.
In 1974, the court unanimously decided that President Richard Nixon must comply with a court's subpoena for tape recordings in the Watergate scandal. In 1997, another unanimous court allowed a sexual-harassment lawsuit to go forward against President Bill Clinton.
In all three cases, lower courts rejected Trump's arguments and said the president has to turn over his records to congressional and NY state investigators.