Two United States Supreme Court decisions delivered on Thursday a legal path for the eventual release of President Donald Trump’s financial records.
Whether the information, which could be damaging for the president, will come out before November’s presidential election is unclear, lawyers and politicians said.
“These two opinions are very dark clouds for the president,” said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Washington, DC.
“The opinions reject the argument that he has this global immunity from prosecution or service of process,” Rossi told Al Jazeera.
In a pair of 7-2 decisions, the Supreme Court ruled that a New York state grand jury could get Trump’s financial records and sent back to a lower court enforcement of a subpoena by Congress.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr, and a House of Representatives committee had subpoenaed Trump’s accounting firm Mazars USA LLP for 10 years of his financial records. Trump claimed his position as president gave him broad protection of “absolute immunity” from investigation by Congress and the New York prosecutors.
The court rejected that claim and ruled Trump is subject to the subpoenas but left open an avenue for the president to argue the legal requests for documents should be limited because they were issued in bad faith or for political motives.
“No citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the court’s opinion.
Two justices appointed by Trump, Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch voted with the majority against the president in both rulings. Former Attorney General Eric Holder in the Obama administration praised the decision on Twitter.
Bottom line: no one is above the law, criminal investigators and Congress can acquire the materials sought. Politically savvy – and legally correct – decisions.
— Eric Holder (@EricHolder) July 9, 2020
At the White House, Trump spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany said the court’s decisions were a “big win” because the cases were remanded back to district courts.
“The president has an ample arsenal of arguments that he can make,” McEnany told reporters at a news conference.
The Manhattan prosecutor is a Democrat, and Democrats in the US Congress were pursuing the investigations solely for “partisan” reasons, she said.
Those legal arguments, however, are not strong, said lawyers who have been critical of the president’s legal claims.
“The idea that he can simply assert that this is harassment, that it’s politically motivated in the absence of any proof whatsoever is not going to help him very much,” said Laurence Tribe, a constitutional scholar at Harvard Law School.
“The president and his people are grasping at straws to find anything they can to indicate this was not as thorough a rout as it was,” Tribe told Al Jazeera.
Trump’s claims will not gain him “leverage” in the lower courts, he said.
When the decisions were announced, Trump lashed out with seven tweets on Twitter, arguing he was being treated unfairly and was being persecuted for political reasons.
Courts in the past have given “broad deference”. BUT NOT ME!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 9, 2020
“The rulings were basically starting all over again” by sending the cases back to lower courts, Trump told reporters at the White House.
“It’s a pure witch-hunt, a hoax … A political witch-hunt,” the president said.
Trump will now try to use the courts to forestall the release of the information, which could be hurt him both politically and legally, lawyers predicted.
“Today’s decisions are a victory for the rule of law in the United States, and support the notion that no person, even the president, is above the law,” said Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan.
“But, once again, President Trump has exploited the slow-moving process of the courts to stall the ultimate production of these records,” McQuade told Al Jazeera.
“By remanding these decisions to the lower courts for further proceedings, the court is opening the door for further delay by Trump, who will likely drag out litigation past the November election,” she said.
Rossi pointed to US historical precedent in the Nixon tapes case during the 1974 Watergate scandal. Federal courts expedited proceedings to force President Richard Nixon to release White House recordings of his conversations. Nixon resigned 16 days later.
“It could be a Nixon tapes situation where the courts are moving fast, and you will have a resolution probably by September. And if the returns and tax information are provided in early September, that is very bad news for President Trump,” Rossi said.
In a statement, Manhattan District Attorney Vance said the rulings were “a tremendous victory for our nation’s system of justice and its founding principle that no one – not even a president – is above the law.”
Vance is investigating whether the Trump Organization falsified records of hush-money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels and nude model Karen McDougal during the 2016 campaign. Both women told of sex with Trump.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats in Congress would renew efforts to win enforcement of their subpoenas for Trump’s financial and tax records.
“The court has reaffirmed the Congress’s authority to conduct oversight on behalf of the American people,” Pelosi told reporters at a news conference.
“We will continue to press our case in the lower courts,” Pelosi said, adding she expects the financial records to show Russian financing of Trump’s real estate ventures.