WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court on Thursday firmly rejected President Donald Trump’s arguments for sweeping presidential immunity and ruled that a New York prosecutor can obtain his financial records but prevented – at least for now – Democratic-led House of Representatives committees from getting similar documents.
The twin 7-2 rulings authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts mark another milestone in Trump’s tumultuous presidency and in the short term prevent details of his finances from becoming public because lower courts must resolve lingering issues.
The businessman-turned politician, seeking re-election on Nov 3, has fought tenaciously to keep his tax returns and other elements of his finances secret – and the rulings spare him of any major revelation at a sensitive time. But looking further ahead, Trump faces possible future criminal prosecution in his native New York, perhaps after he leaves office.
The Supreme Court emphasised that there are limits to the powers of the presidency and stoutly reaffirmed the principle that not even the president is above the law – a message delivered 3.5 years into a presidency in which Trump has repeatedly skirted the norms of American political conduct.
Trump’s two Supreme Court appointees, conservatives Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, joined Roberts and the four liberal justices in both rulings, spurning Trump’s arguments that the Constitution gave him absolute immunity from any criminal proceedings as a sitting president.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a Democrat, and the three House committees all issued subpoenas to third parties for the records, not to the Republican president himself. Trump sued to block enforcement of the subpoenas.
The court in the New York case ruled that the subpoena to Trump’s long-term accounting firm, Mazars LLP, for tax returns and other financial records to be turned over to a grand jury as part of Vance’s criminal investigation can be enforced.
The justices rebuffed Trump’s broad arguments on expansive presidential powers in a showdown with Congress as he tried to block subpoenas by lawmakers to Mazars and two banks – Deutsche Bank and Capital One – for his financial records.
In doing so, the court also faulted the broad arguments made by the House and sent the litigation back to lower courts, delaying the final outcome.
Trump portrayed himself as a victim, calling the subpoenas a “pure witch hunt” and a “hoax” in comments to reporters. On Twitter, he wrote, “This is all a political prosecution … and now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York. Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!”
Trump’s argument that he was immune from any criminal process “runs up against the 200 years of precedent establishing that Presidents, and their official communications, are subject to judicial process,” Roberts wrote.
“We affirm 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,” Roberts added.
Roberts rejected the suggestion that the decision would subject future presidents to harassment by local prosecutors, noting that the court in 1997 rejected a similar argument made by President Bill Clinton when he faced a civil lawsuit brought by a woman who accused him of making unwanted sexual advances – litigation the court refused to delay.
The court in 1974, Roberts noted, also ruled that President Richard Nixon must turn over audio tapes in the Watergate scandal that eventually drove him to resign.
‘HE IS HIDING’
Unlike other recent presidents, Trump has refused to release his tax returns and other documents that could provide details on his wealth and the activities of his family real-estate company, the Trump Organization.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats will continue to investigate Trump and seek to enforce the subpoenas.
“Congress’s constitutional responsibility to uncover the truth continues, specifically related to the President’s Russia connection that he is hiding,” Pelosi said, referring to the possibility that Trump’s financial records could show such an entanglement.
Roberts said lawmakers will need to further explain the need for the records at the lower court, which would then assess the burden placed on the president.
Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer, said he would “raise additional constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts.”
Vance’s investigation into Trump and the Trump Organization was spurred by disclosures of hush payments to two women who said they had past sexual relationships with the president, pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal – relationships he has denied.
Trump argued that Congress lacked a valid purpose for seeking his records and that such disclosure would compromise his and his family’s privacy and distract him from his duties. In the Vance investigation, Trump’s lawyers argued before a lower court that law enforcement officials would not have the power to investigate him even if he shot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
The House Oversight Committee issued its subpoenas after Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, told Congress Trump had inflated and deflated certain assets on financial statements between 2011 and 2013 in part to reduce his real estate taxes.
The House Financial Services Committee is examining possible money laundering in US property deals involving Trump. The House Intelligence Committee is investigating whether Trump’s dealings left him vulnerable to the influence of foreign individuals or governments.