Trump scorns court on tax rulings while records stay private

Register now

Donald Trump scored a tactical victory from the Supreme Court that will likely keep his personal financial records out of public view through the November election, but he framed Thursday’s two rulings as a loss imposed by his enemies.

The president was rebuffed in his broader effort to establish that a president can’t be forced to give in to the demands of Congress and prosecutors, prompting a series of angry tweets in which he lashed out at Democrats and at the court.

In practical terms, the court effectively ensured that voters won’t see potentially embarrassing documents from his bank and accounting firms at least for months to come.

Rather than claim partial vindication, as did his personal attorney Jay Sekulow, Trump seized on the rulings to bolster one of his favorite political themes — that he’s an outsider fighting against a “deep state” that even includes a Supreme Court with a conservative majority.

“Courts in the past have given “broad deference,” he tweeted. “BUT NOT ME!”

Critics have said those records — including tax returns that past presidential candidates made public voluntarily — would show that Trump has overstated his net worth to promote his image as a billionaire developer, understated it for tax purposes and engaged in hush-money payments to women who alleged they had affairs with him.

The justices sent back to lower courts a case about the House’s demands for his financial records, doubtless delaying a resolution of that dispute well past the election. Although they refused to give Trump the categorical immunity he sought from a New York grand jury subpoena for his tax returns, they allowed the president to pursue “subpoena-specific constitutional challenges” in federal district court.

“We’re basically starting all over again, sending everything back down to the lower courts,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “Frankly, this is another political witch hunt, the likes of which nobody’s ever seen before.”

Even if Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance succeeds in winning access to the documents, they would be turned over under grand jury rules that will keep them secret at least as long as an investigation continues.

Anti-establishment fights

With his approval ratings sagging months into a coronavirus pandemic that has decimated the economy and left 134,000 Americans dead, Trump is waging anti-establishment battles on multiple fronts, from overruling the conclusions of his own public health experts to denouncing efforts to remove Confederate iconography from public spaces.

His goal is to replicate his surprise 2016 victory, when he battled back from dismal poll numbers to narrowly win the presidency thanks to a dedicated and enthusiastic core of supporters alienated by the status quo.

He depicted the bid by Vance as only the latest in a line of politically motivated bids to delegitimize his presidency.

He called it “a second, third, and fourth try” after the special counsel investigation led by Robert Mueller and an impeachment effort led by Democrats hadn’t succeeded.

“Now the Supreme Court gives a delay ruling that they would never have given for another President,” he wrote in a series of tweets. ”This is about PROSECUTORIAL MISCONDUCT.”

The subtext of the president’s complaints was made plain by his conclusion, that “despite this, I have done more than any President in history in first 3 1/2 years!”

Deferred pain

The Supreme Court’s rulings defer but don’t necessarily eliminate the pain for Trump — particularly if he wins re-election. If Vance is able to convince a grand jury that there’s reason to believe Trump acted illegally, a second term may be at least partially defined by a continuing investigation of the president’s hush money payments.

The court also laid out specific criteria for lawmakers seeking access to the president’s financial records — with House Democrats already indicating they will press for Trump’s records under just such terms.

“The path that the Supreme Court has laid out is clearly achievable by us,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday, adding that the ruling was “not good news for the president.”

And Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has seized on the issue, noting on social media that he’s released 21 years of his own tax returns and repeating his call for Trump to make his public.

Still, Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns in 2016 didn’t prove damaging to his political prospects. And with voters weighing the continuing pandemic, persistent unemployment, and growing concern over racial inequality, the president’s personal financial dealings are unlikely to sway many headed to the polls.

And while revelations to come might frustrate the president, it’s not clear that they would inflict new damage to him politically. Some of the tax schemes used by the president earlier in his life were already exposed in a Pulitzer Prize-winning story published by the New York Times, and Trump argued during the 2016 campaign that avoiding payments to Uncle Sam made him “smart.” After the Times report, Trump said he was a “big beneficiary” of loopholes.

“But I’m working for you now,” he said. “I’m not working for Trump.”

Little fallout

Nor has Trump ever faced much political fallout for questions about his personal life, thanks in part to his success in winning over evangelical voters through his success in adding more conservative judges to federal courts.

At the height of the 2018 controversy over allegations that Trump had paid off Playboy model Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about extramarital affairs — which the president denied — just 30% of Americans said they believed the president more than Daniels, according to a poll by YouGov and the Economist.

Similarly, voters never seemed to particularly believe Trump’s claims to be worth more than $10 billion. Only 20% of voters in a 2016 poll by Morning Consult pegged the president’s net worth that high, with 43% saying his total holdings amounted to less than half that amount. A Bloomberg News analysis conducted last year pegged the president’s assets at about $3.5 billion, with debt of about $550 million.

— With assistance from Greg Stohr and Jordan Fabian

Bloomberg News