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WASHINGTON — President Trump’s tax returns will stay secret — for now.
Trump just won a temporary reprieve in a pair of Supreme Court decisions that will allow him to hold onto his tax returns for at least the near future — and quite likely through the 2020 election.
The Supreme Court sent both cases involving subpoenas for his financial records back down to lower courts to be argued further. The high court didn’t leave Trump exempt from having to answer subpoenas down the line, but decided that for the moment, his financial advisers won’t have to turn his innermost secret documents over to Congress or New York prosecutors in the immediate future.
“A president may avail himself of the same protections available to every other citizen, including the right to challenge the subpoena on any grounds permitted by state law,” Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion of the first decision, Trump v. Vance. But, Roberts wrote, “absent a need to protect the executive, the public interest in fair and effective law enforcement cuts in favor of comprehensive access to evidence.”
The decisions, which sent the cases back down to the lower courts for further analysis, mark a stunning setback for those hoping to take a good, long look at Trump’s financial secrets before the 2020 election. Trump has been promising to make them public ever since the early days of his presidential campaign over four years ago. But he’s been fighting like hell in court to keep them secret since then.
Trump, however, wasn't in the mood to celebrate. He apparently felt he should have crushed his enemies in a final legal battle in the high court. Moments after the decision, he tweeted that forcing him to “keep fighting” is “not fair.”
Trump will now have to continue trying to block the subpoenas, from Manhattan’s District Attorney, Cy Vance, and Democratic Congressional committees, which have asked his banks and accounting firm to hand over years’ worth of financial documents.
In one case, Vance subpoenaed Trump’s records in connection with an investigation into hush-money payouts to women who said they slept with Trump prior to the 2016 election — payments that already sent Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, to prison.
The high court ruled Trump is not somehow immune, as his lawyers had argued, from that subpoena just because he is president. But the justices also ruled that he could raise other arguments in the lower courts that hadn’t yet been made like a normal American. And that could easily take months.
“By remanding the cases for further proceedings, the Court has allowed Trump to take advantage of a system that is rooted in the slows,” Barbara McQuade, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan, wrote in an email to VICE News. “Trump will use these decisions as an opportunity to continue to stall in the lower courts. He will avoid accountability by running out the clock past Election Day.”
In the second case, Democrats in Congress asked Trump’s financial advisers for many of the same documents sought by prosecutors in New York.
But the court set out new limits on Congressional subpoenas and ruled they must be more closely linked to Congress’ basic job of passing laws, should be more narrowly focused, and shouldn’t be unnecessarily burdensome on the president given the fact that he’s also got a country to run.
The rulings left room for both Congress and the prosecutors to subpoena information from a sitting president, including his banks and financial advisor — while effectively setting out clearer ground rules for how that can happen.
Now, the lower courts will have to assess the subpoenas all over again with those issues in mind — and decide whether Trump can continue to keep his financial secrets, well, secret.
“It looks like in both cases, the Court decides the legal issue in favor of oversight and accountability but denies the public immediate access to Trump's tax returns,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a expert on prosecutorial ethics and professor at New York Law School. “
"This seems in keeping with the Court's desire to maintain its own neutrality in highly polarized times without allowing the unprecedented conduct of the President to alter the balance of power between the states and the federal government and between the different branches.”
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks during a "Salute to America" event on the South Lawn of the White House, Saturday, July 4, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)