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Trump, no longer able to hide tax returns, cries 'political persecution'

Former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen in August

Former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen in August 2018. Credit: AP / Mary Altaffer

His vulnerable side is showing

Even after he picked three of its justices, the U.S. Supreme Court can't stop disappointing Donald Trump, whether blowing off his election-fraud claims or removing the last obstacle standing between a New York City prosecutor's criminal investigation of the former president and financial records that could make the case.

Ending a 18-month legal battle, the high court issued a one-sentence ruling on Monday, rejecting the bid by Trump’s lawyers to block the release of his corporate and personal tax returns, as well as communications and other records from his accounting firm, to a New York grand jury investigating his finances. The justices' decision clears the way for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to obtain eight years' worth of the records. Vance tweeted three words Monday: "The work continues."

The investigation began after Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen testified before Congress that he directed hush money payments to two of Trump’s alleged former paramours during the 2016 campaign. Court filings by prosecutors suggested that they also are investigating potential crimes like tax and insurance fraud, such as whether Trump lowballed property values to keep his taxes down while inflating them to obtain better loan terms.

As president, Trump got Attorney General William Barr to join his effort to block Vance's subpoena. As a private citizen, Trump is left with only the victim card to play. The former president issued a rambling statement from Mar-a-Lago on "the Continuing Political Persecution of President Donald J. Trump," calling it another chapter in "the greatest political Witch Hunt in the history of our Country." He said he was targeted "in a totally Democrat location, New York City and State, completely controlled and dominated by a heavily reported enemy of mine, Governor Andrew Cuomo." In reality, New York's governor has nothing to do with the DA's office.

Aside from Vance’s investigation, Trump is facing a series of probes launched by New York Attorney General Letitia James into the real estate mogul’s financial dealings, and another criminal inquiry in Fulton County, Georgia, over his efforts to strong-arm the Peach State's election officials into reversing a vote count won by Joe Biden.

When he first ran for president, Trump said he would make his tax returns public, but he reneged, claiming with no clear foundation that he couldn't because they were under audit by the Internal Revenue Service. The court's decision won't make his tax filings public; Vance has said his office will abide by grand-jury secrecy rules while digging through the records surrendered by the Mazars accounting firm that worked for Trump.

Mazars, in a statement, said it is "committed to fulfilling all of our professional and legal obligations." For more, see Newsday's story by Laura Figueroa Hernandez.

Election losing streak extended in OT

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday also turned away Republican challenges to presidential election results in Pennsylvania, refusing to take up a monthslong dispute over a deadline extension in the Keystone State for receiving mail-in ballots.

Three justices — Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch — said the case deserved the court's attention, though as Alito pointed out, "A decision in these cases would not have any implications regarding the 2020 election." He and Thomas said a decision could provide guidance for future elections.

Gorsuch was a Trump nominee, but Trump's two others — Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — joined the 6-3 majority not wanting to get the court involved.

The high court also formally dismissed a range of election lawsuits filed by Trump and his allies in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia and Arizona — all states won by Biden.

Janison: A new war on voting

False alarms about widespread election fraud have long served as an argument for new rules and restrictions on voting, writes Newsday's Dan Janison. After weeks of frivolous lawsuits, Trump White House propaganda and fake "evidence," this systemic-fraud narrative proved a bigger burlesque than ever before.

But red-state Republicans are wedded to their spiel against "the steal" as a tactical defense against high turnout among minority voters that favors Democrats, and are already looking for ways to set up obstacles for the next time.

In Georgia, where the GOP surprisingly lost the presidential vote and both U.S. Senate seats, party lawmakers are pushing to contain early and mail-in balloting that encouraged big participation despite the coronavirus pandemic. State Rep. Barry Fleming introduced a measure that would require IDs of absentee voters for the first time, limit the use of mobile voting units and ban counties from holding early voting on Sundays, when "souls to the polls" drives popular with Black voters often take place.

Recently a nonpartisan, nonprofit research corporation called MITRE issued an analysis that searched for but found nothing to support assertions that votes were fixed or faked in any of eight battleground states.

Biden: Remember the 500,000

In a somber White House ceremony Monday evening, President Biden marked the nation's COVID-19 death toll topping the 500,000 mark.

"As a nation, we can't accept such a cruel fate. We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow," Biden said. He pulled out a note he says he carries with him every day — including the total number of Americans lost in the coronavirus pandemic: "500,071 dead. That’s more Americans who’ve died in one year, in this pandemic, than in World War I, World War II and the Vietnam War combined."

To those left behind, Biden said, "I promise you, the day will come when the memory of the loved one you lost will bring a smile to your lips before a tear to your eye."

After the televised address, the president, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses, observed a moment of silence outside the White House during a candlelight ceremony. They stood at the foot of the South Portico, covered in 500 candles, each honoring 1,000 of the dead, and listened to a Marine Corps band play "Amazing Grace" as they held a moment of silence.

Biden also ordered flags on federal properties to be flown at half-staff for five days.

Garland declares independence

Merrick Garland, Biden’s nominee for attorney general, vowed Monday that his first focus, if confirmed, would be on the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. He also sought to assure lawmakers that the Justice Department would remain politically independent on his watch.

"The attorney general represents the public interest, particularly and specifically as defined by the Constitution and the statutes of the United States," Garland told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "I do not plan to be interfered with by anyone."

Garland is widely expected to win confirmation with strong bipartisan support. Under Trump, the Justice Department endured a tumultuous era and faced abundant criticism from Democrats over what they saw as the politicizing of the nation’s top law enforcement agencies, The Associated Press writes.

A former federal prosecutor and judge, he called the Jan. 6 Capitol violence "the most heinous attack on the democratic process that I have seen, and one that I never expected to see in my lifetime." He said far-right extremism today was worse than when he investigated the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing of a federal building that killed 168 people.

Garland choked up while explaining that his family history — his grandparents fled czarist Russia in the early 20th century — inspired his commitment to public service. He said, "My grandparents fled anti-Semitism and persecution. The country took us in and protected us. I feel an obligation to the country to pay back, and this is the highest, best use of my own set of skills to pay back." (See a video clip.)

Neera so close, so far

Biden isn't giving up on trying to win Senate approval for Neera Tanden's nomination as director of the Office of Management and Budget. "We look forward to the committee votes this week and to continuing to work toward her confirmation through engagement with both parties," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

What remains a mystery is where they can find a Republican senator to put her within reach for Harris' tiebreaker vote. It won't be Mitt Romney, whose spokesman said Monday: "It’s hard to return to comity and respect with a nominee who has issued a thousand mean tweets." Nor Rob Portman, who said "Tanden's public statements will make it more difficult for her to work effectively with both parties in this role." Nor Susan Collins, derided as "the worst" in a past Tanden tweet, who said Monday the nominee "has neither the experience nor the temperament to lead this critical agency." The earlier defection of a Democratic senator, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, already put Tanden's Senate confirmation at risk.

A lone conservative Republican voice urging GOP senators to forgive Tanden and let Biden choose the budget chief he wants was Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt.

"Because Tanden is smart, funny and quick, she’s capable of leaving a mark. I know — I have more Tanden-inflicted scars than the villains in all the Zorro movies and television episodes combined," Hewitt wrote. "Tanden has just clobbered people the good old-fashioned way: with words," he said.

More coronavirus news

See a roundup of the latest regional pandemic developments on Long Island and beyond by Newsday's reporting staff, written by Bart Jones. For a full list of Newsday's coronavirus stories, click here.

What else is happening:

  • It wasn't a complete wipeout for Trump at the Supreme Court Monday. The justices rejected an appeal from porn star Stormy Daniels, who sought to revive a defamation lawsuit she filed against the former president. The decision let stand a lower-court ruling, which dismissed the suit and ordered Daniels to pay nearly $300,000 in attorneys’ fees.
  • Jill Biden has told her staff that her agenda as first lady is still evolving, CNN reports. She has had a full calendar of events, appearances and interviews, pursued policy passion projects and maintains her schedule as a teacher at Northern Virginia Community College.
  • A House committee has scheduled a hearing Wednesday to focus on the role of companies that provide cable television service in the spread of falsehoods concerning the 2020 election, The New York Times reported. While Congress can raise the issue of whether cable providers bear responsibility for the programs they deliver, it may have no way to force them to drop networks that spread misinformation.
  • After just over a month in office, a Gallup Poll finds 67% of Americans approve of Biden's handling of the coronavirus, while 31% do not.
  • Former Vice President Mike Pence declined an invitation to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference next week in Orlando, Florida, according to multiple reports. Trump plans to be there Sunday for his first speech since leaving office.

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