WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has for years resisted releasing his tax returns for public scrutiny as typically was done by past presidential candidates. But even as the Supreme Court on Thursday cleared the way for New York prosecutors to obtain his records, legal analysts said it’s unlikely the public will see Trump’s tax returns before the general election.
After the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. can subpoena the president’s business records, Trump’s personal attorney Jay Sekulow vowed to continue contesting the subpoenas in a lower court, a move that could prolong the production of the documents to Vance.
In a separate decision, the Supreme Court stopped short of requiring Trump to immediately turn over his financial records to Congress as part of a series of probes led by House Democrats. In a 7-2 decision the court tossed the case back to a lower court for further scrutiny. House Democratic leaders framed the decision as a victory, saying that while the decision will delay their investigations into Trump’s business dealings, the decision ultimately upheld Congress’ oversight powers.
Legal analysts said it’s unlikely the congressional case will move swiftly through the U.S. District Court system, especially with courts running under scaled-back conditions because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The decisions today are a loss for President Trump’s legal theory that he is categorically above the law,” said James Sample, a constitutional law professor at Hofstra Law School. “Politically, however, the White House strategy of obstructing the subpoenas and litigating every last aspect of the case, including the proceedings still to come, means the White House will successfully run out the clock such that voters will continue to be deprived of Trump’s financial records in 2020 just as voters were in 2016. Long-term, Donald Trump, the private citizen, will have to face the music, but short-term, President Trump’s delay of game tactics worked.”
What’s next in the Manhattan District Attorney’s investigation into Trump?
Vance, in a statement, said the investigation into whether Trump falsified Trump Organization business records to conceal hush money payments to two alleged paramours will move forward. But he did not detail a time frame.
“Our investigation, which was delayed for almost a year by this lawsuit, will resume, guided as always by the grand jury’s solemn obligation to follow the law and the facts, wherever they may lead,” Vance said in a statement.
Sekulow said in a statement that Trump’s legal team “will now proceed to raise additional constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts.”
Lawyers note that even if Trump ultimately turns over the requested documents to Vance, they will be concealed from public view because of confidentiality rules governing grand jury investigations.
Richard Lempert, an emeritus law professor at the University of Michigan, in a blog post noted: “In most jurisdictions, including New York, information collected for use in grand jury must by law be kept secret from the public and the press.”
Lempert said there are ways in which the information may be revealed, including a judge ruling that “the public interest in disclosure outweighs the considerations that underlie grand jury secrecy.”
What does the court’s ruling mean for the House Democrats’ investigations into Trump’s finances?
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-California), a leader in the House impeachment hearings, said Thursday while the court’s ruling “will serve to delay the Committee’s investigation … we remain confident that we will ultimately prevail.”
The House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees have sought Trump’s financial records, arguing that the records are critical to determine if there are any conflicts of interest between Trump’s real estate business and public office, and any foreign entanglements in his business dealings.
Jeff Robbins, former chief counsel for Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, now an attorney at Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, said in a phone interview House Democrats will now likely “take a look at whether or not to narrow the subpoenas to some degree, whether they need to back up the basis for the subpoenas with some additional evidence, doing it in a less hurried way than they did it the first time, frankly, and then, defend the subpoenas.”
Robbins said for House Democrats to compel the lower court to side with its request for documents and secure Trump’s records before the general election, “the United States District Courts would have to schedule a hearing. There would have to be a hearing. The court would have to issue rulings. Then there's an appeal period that goes to the Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals, you know has a briefing schedule — briefs, hearings, and then the right to appeal to the Supreme Court. That's an awful lot to achieve between now and November 3.”