WASHINGTON — President Trump’s Department of Justice just intervened on his behalf to try and stop Manhattan’s District Attorney from digging up his tax returns.
The move marks an extraordinary clash between state and federal prosecutors, and the latest in a string of actions Attorney General William Barr’s DOJ has taken to protect Trump that legal experts worry raise questions about the department’s independence in the Trump era.
“It’s unheard of for a prosecutor to get involved against another prosecutor like this,” said Duncan Levin, a former senior staff member in the Manhattan DA’s office. “It’s really worrisome.”
Trump’s DOJ filed a motion late Wednesday in support of the president’s personal legal team, who asked a court in New York to block a subpoena for eight years worth of Trump’s tax records that was filed by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance earlier this summer. The motion asks for extra time, so the DOJ can offer its opinion on the “weighty constitutional issues” that Trump’s lawyers raised.
“What they’re saying is that if the president is suspected of breaking the law, you can't even gather evidence about it."
And they did indeed raise constitutional issues. Trump’s lawyers made the unprecedented argument that as president, he should be totally immune from criminal investigation — a theory that has not been tested in the courts, and which former prosecutors called an outlandish expansion of executive immunity.
While DOJ policy has held for decades that a sitting president cannot be criminally indicted, Trump’s new legal argument would represent a massive power grab for the president if ultimately upheld by the courts.
“What they’re saying is that if the president is suspected of breaking the law, you can't even gather evidence about it,” said Patrick Cotter, a former prosecutor in the Eastern District of New York. “That’s extraordinary, and I don’t see the legal basis for it.”
The Manhattan DA is investigating whether New York state laws were broken when Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, paid hush-money to the adult film star Stormy Daniels, who has claimed to have had an affair with Trump. Cohen has pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in connection with the scheme, and said he was acting at the direction of Trump. The DOJ’s request for delay cites the “irreparable harm” that Trump could suffer if they’re made public.
The DOJ was joined by federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York — which has earned such a reputation for independence that it’s sometimes called “the Sovereign District of New York.”
Former SDNY prosecutors fretted this move could tarnish that reputation.
“I’ve heard from several SDNY alums who have said this is a sad day for the office and its reputation for independence from politics and Main Justice,” said Mimi Rocah, a former SDNY prosecutor. “As one put it: RIP ‘The Sovereign District of New York.’”
COVER: President Trump and his Attorney General William Barr speak in the White House Rose Garden on July 11, 2019. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)