May 12, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court seeks a middle ground on release of Trump's taxes

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After more than three hours of oral arguments Tuesday morning, the Supreme Court seems unlikely to grant President Trump the sweeping total immunity he has asked for while fighting subpoenas for his taxes and other financial records.

Why it matters: The Supreme Court seems likely to raise the bar that both Congress and local prosecutors would have to meet before they can obtain Trump’s financial records — as the justices worried about exposing future presidents to fishing expeditions — and Congress may ultimately have a harder time meeting that standard.

The state of play: Trump is trying to beat back two sets of subpoenas — one from a trio of House committees and another from Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.

  • Vance's office was far more effective during today's oral arguments than the House's lawyer, whose disastrous appearance may have done his case real harm.

None of these subpoenas were delivered to Trump himself, but rather to his banks and accounting firms.

  • Still, Trump's lawyers argue that none of those subpoenas are lawful — and that the president is largely immune from all non-impeachment investigations as long as he's in office.
  • The court seemed unlikely to go that far, but also seemed unlikely to issue sweeping or unanimous rulings that would simply force the banks to promptly hand over Trump's records.

Between the lines: Congressional investigations must have a "legislative purpose" and can’t be an exercise in law enforcement.

  • In this case, the House says records about Trump’s businesses and personal finances could help inform future legislation about foreign election interference, presidential disclosures or money laundering.
  • The court's conservative justices were deeply skeptical of that rationale and pressed Douglas Letter, the House's lawyer, to define some limits on Congress’ subpoena power, to ensure congressional investigations wouldn’t be used to "harass" future presidents — which Trump says is happening here.
  • Letter repeatedly failed to articulate any such limits, either when pressed by conservatives or handed a lifeline by liberals.

Prosecutors, on the other hand, are clearly allowed to conduct law enforcement, and the court seemed more receptive to Vance's subpoena.

  • The questioning during those arguments was much more focused on practicalities — how to set forth a standard that would not put the president above the law, but which would still ensure the president can do his job without being bogged down in legal proceedings.
  • That would not be the sort of blanket immunity Trump is asking for, but it would likely drag this particular case out longer, decreasing the likelihood that Trump's financial records would be made public before the 2020 election.

What's next: The decision in the case is likely to land sometime this summer — right in the middle of election season.

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