A US federal judge on Monday emphatically rejected President Donald Trump‘s challenge to the release of his tax returns to New York prosecutors, saying the president’s broad claim of immunity from all criminal investigations is at odds with the Constitution of the United States. But an appeals court blocked any handover of the records for now.
The developments escalate the president’s battle to keep his finances under wraps, despite having promised during his 2016 White House run that he would disclose his tax returns.
At issue is a request from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R Vance Jr that Trump’s accounting firm turn over eight years worth of his business and personal tax returns for an investigation into the payment of hush money to two women who claimed to have had affairs with the president.
US District Judge Victor Marrero turned down Trump’s attempt to keep the tax returns under wraps, saying the president was making a “categorical and limitless assertion of presidential immunity”.
The president’s lawyers immediately appealed to the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals, and it granted a temporary stay of the judge’s ruling “pending expedited review” by the court.
“The Radical Left Democrats have failed on all fronts,” Trump fumed on Twitter, “so now they are pushing local New York City and State Democrat prosecutors to go get President Trump. A thing like this has never happened to any President before. Not even close!”
The criminal investigation in New York is unfolding with Trump already under siege on Capitol Hill from a fast-moving impeachment drive set off by his attempts to get Ukraine‘s leader to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden. The judge’s ruling marked the latest in a string of setbacks for the president in the past couple of weeks.
Trump’s legal team had challenged the order to release the documents, which was made in September, arguing that sitting presidents are immune to criminal investigations and investigators should wait until after Trump left the White House. The president’s lawyers claim the investigation led by Vance, a Democrat, is politically motivated.
Marrero called Trump’s claim of broad immunity “extraordinary” and “an overreach of executive power”.
“As the court reads it, presidential immunity would stretch to cover every phase of criminal proceedings, including investigations, grand jury proceedings and subpoenas, indictment, prosecution, arrest, trial, conviction, and incarceration,” Marrero wrote in his 75-page decision. “That constitutional protection presumably would encompass any conduct, at any time, in any forum, whether federal or state, and whether the president acted alone or in concert with other individuals.”
The judge added that such a “sweeping doctrine finds no support in the Constitution’s text or history,” and would effectively leave the president, his family and his businesses “above the law”.
Vance had subpoenaed Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, as part of his investigation into the Trump Organization’s involvement in buying the silence of the two women who claimed to have had affairs with the president.
Vance’s office is specifically looking into whether New York state laws were broken when the president’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, was reimbursed by the Trump Organization for payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels, who claimed she had had an affair with Trump.
The investigation was launched after federal prosecutors concluded an investigation in August into whether the payments broke federal campaign finance laws.
Cohen made the payment to Daniels himself and arranged for American Media Inc, the parent company of the National Enquirer, to pay the other to model Karen McDougal. He pleaded guilty in November to campaign finance violations, tax evasion and other crimes and is serving a three-year sentence.
Trump was never charged, but prosecutors said publicly that he was aware of and directed the illegal payments. Justice Department policy has long been that sitting presidents cannot be charged criminally.
It is unclear what Trump’s returns might have to do with the criminal investigation.
The tax returns have been a subject of controversy throughout Trump’s campaign and presidency.
It has become customary in the US for presidential candidates to release their returns, which offer a window into their personal finances and business dealings. Trump is the first president in decades to buck that expectation.
Grand jury proceedings and records in New York are secret. If Vance gains access to Trump’s returns through a grand jury investigation, that does not mean that their contents will be disclosed publicly.