President Trump is one of the only presidents in modern memory who has kept his tax returns private, and attempts to force their release have sparked a mountain of litigation, reaching all the way to the Supreme Court.
But the Supreme Court’s verdict on whether Trump’s banks and accounting firm can be required to release his personal financial records is a bit of a mixed bag.
On the one hand, the court delivered Trump a major defeat, dismissing his most expansive claims to presidential immunity. Trump has argued that while in the White House, he can’t be criminally investigated. But the court ruled in a 7-2 decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts that New York prosecutors do have the authority to subpoena his business records, sending the case back to the lower court.
But in the second ruling on Trump’s tax returns — which was also a 7-2 decision written by Roberts — which involved three House committees’ subpoenas for his records, the court essentially punted. The justices emphasized the House does have the authority to issue subpoenas related to oversight of the executive branch, but they said lower court judges didn’t properly weigh the separation of powers issues inherent in the requests — suggesting that Congress’s power to investigate the president is not unlimited. The ruling also sent that case back to the lower courts for further consideration.
That means Trump’s much-sought-after tax returns will almost certainly remain under wraps until after the election in November.
In essence, neither side quite got what it wanted, which is why untangling the legal and practical implications of the two rulings is important. In both sets of cases, Trump’s lawyers made extraordinarily far-reaching claims about what it means to be commander in chief. And those arguments did not find an especially receptive audience with most of the justices — including Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who Trump appointed to the court. (Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito were the two dissenting votes in both cases.)
In the case involving the New York prosecutor’s subpoena for his financial records, Trump’s legal team contended that the criminal legal process couldn’t touch him while he was president — a claim that the justices roundly rejected. “Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our Court established that no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” Roberts wrote in his opinion. “We reaffirm that principle today and hold that the President is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need.”
Similarly, in the case involving Congress, Trump’s lawyers argued that the House couldn’t subpoena his financial records because they didn’t serve a legitimate legislative purpose. House Democrats had argued that the documents were necessary to shed light on possible foreign entanglements by Trump and money laundering by Trump and his family. Trump’s arguments didn’t get much traction here either, although the court also suggested that it was wary about the breadth of House Democrats’ subpoena. Bottom line: Congress emerged from the case with its authority to conduct executive branch oversight mostly intact, but in the short term, Trump got a big practical win, because it’s now virtually guaranteed that his tax returns will stay out of the public eye until after the election.
That’s because even though the court ruled that Trump’s arguments about sweeping presidential immunity don’t hold water, Roberts noted that Trump could still try to fight the subpoenas as an ordinary citizen, so the case could continue for some time. And even if the New York prosecutors get the documents in a relatively timely way, they’ll remain under wraps as the criminal investigation moves forward, which is almost guaranteed to keep them out of public view at least until after the election, if they’re ever made public at all. Meanwhile, the legal battle between Trump and House Democrats certainly won’t be resolved before November either as the cases are returning to the lower courts for more litigation.
And ultimately that’s a significant electoral victory for Trump, even if his claims to sweeping executive power were mostly dismissed. Because with four months until the election, the last thing Trump probably wanted was a news cycle devoted to the contents of his tax returns. But it is striking that seven Supreme Court justices, including Roberts, Kavanaugh and Gorsuch, weren’t on Trump’s side when he claimed broad immunity from prosecution and investigation while in office.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has pushed an expansive view of presidential power that could reverberate long past his own time in the White House. Today, the Supreme Court didn’t buy it.