Trump gets high court review on financial records subpoenas

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The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to consider President Donald Trump’s bid to keep his financial records away from Congress and a New York grand jury, setting up a major constitutional and political showdown in the middle of next year’s election campaign.

The justices said Friday they will hear three appeals from Trump that raise sweeping questions about congressional and state investigations into alleged misconduct by the president. Trump is asking the court to sharply limit Congress’s powers and give the president immunity from state criminal probes while in office.

The court said it will hear arguments during the two-week sitting that starts March 23. A ruling is likely by the end of June.

The cases will test the court at a politically fraught time, with Chief Justice John Roberts already preparing to preside over a likely impeachment trial of Trump next month in the Senate. The disputes could rival the 1974 Richard Nixon tapes case for their constitutional significance.

Trump is counting on the court’s conservative majority to insulate him from a criminal investigation stemming from hush payments to two women who claimed they had sex with him before he took office. Trump is also trying to stifle congressional probes into a variety of topics, and ensure that Democratic lawmakers don’t get financial documents they could then release to the public.

The subpoenas, directed to Trump’s accountants and banks, seek years of his personal records, as well as those of the Trump Organization and his other businesses. In the New York case, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is explicitly asking for Trump’s tax returns.

Three House committees are seeking years of Trump-related financial documents, in one case from the accounting firm Mazars USA and in the other from his banks, Deutsche Bank AG and Capital One Financial Corp.

Trump says lawmakers are improperly trying to engage in law enforcement, something he says is the exclusive domain of the government’s executive branch.

“Usurpation of the executive’s law-enforcement prerogative is bad enough,” he argued in an appeal filed by his private lawyers in the Mazars case. “But the issue is even more perilous when the subpoena targets the president.”

The three House committees -- Oversight, Financial Services and Intelligence -- say they are pursuing legislative goals, including updating ethics laws and trying to guard against foreign influence in the 2020 election.

“There is a long history of congressional subpoenas for testimony and documents relating to the president, including subpoenas to third parties,” the House said. “To legislate effectively, Congress often needs to probe past wrongdoing or noncompliance.”

The grand jury case centers on the power of state prosecutors. Trump, who famously said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing political support, is now asking the court to say the president can’t be investigated for such a crime, or any other, while in office.

“The practical threat that state criminal process poses to a president cannot be overstated,” Trump argued. “Unleashing all 50 states and thousands of local governments to conduct their own broad-ranging criminal investigations of a sitting president is unimaginable.”

Hush money

Vance is investigating whether Trump’s business falsified records to disguise the hush payments. He said Trump’s contentions have so little merit the court should have rejected the appeal without a hearing.

Trump’s “assertion of absolute presidential immunity is foreclosed by this court’s precedent, which conclusively establishes that no person in this country is so high that he is above the law,” Vance argued.

Vance points to the 1974 Nixon ruling, which said the president had to turn over Oval Office tape recordings for use in the criminal trial of six top aides stemming from the Watergate break-in. The prosecutor also relies on the 1997 ruling that rejected President Bill Clinton’s claim of a broad right to postpone a sexual harassment trial in federal court.

The Justice Department is backing Trump and his personal lawyers, though the department isn’t going as far in its legal arguments. U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco told the Supreme Court Vance must make a “heightened showing of need” to get the tax returns.

-- Greg Stohr, Bloomberg News

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