To answer your first question: No, you’re not much more likely now than you were last week to see President Donald Trump’s tax returns before the election. Not unless he releases them, as other presidents and candidates have done, as his opponent has done and as he himself once promised to do.
To answer your second question: No, the U.S. Supreme Court, with a conservative majority that includes two Trump-appointed justices, didn’t just bend to the president’s will. In two rulings issued Thursday — the last ones of the 2019-20 term — the court agreed that a New York prosecutor may see Trump’s returns and that Congress may seek a president’s financial records within limits. The vote count in both case was 7-2, with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh joining the majorities and Chief Justice John Roberts writing the opinions. One case was decided on precedent; the other, as Roberts noted, lacked it, so he laid out guidelines for the lower courts to consider.
The reason voters won’t see Trump’s financial information forthwith is that both cases are still churning within the legal system.
In Trump v. Vance, the office of the Manhattan district attorney had sought eight years of business and personal tax records from Trump’s accounting firm as part of an investigation of hush-money payments preceding the 2016 election. The case is before a grand jury, which confers — as grand juries do — in secret and will not necessarily share information publicly before November, if at all. Trump also can raise further objections in district court.
For the chapter of the story now resolved, however, Trump had argued that a president is immune to state criminal processes under Article II of the Constitution, which defines the role of the executive branch, and by the Supremacy Clause, which gives priority to federal laws. He had added that a subpoena, anyway, is a distraction from his duties and an invitation to political harassment. The U.S. solicitor general also had argued that if a president is involved, there should at least be a heightened standard.
Citing two centuries of precedent in cases touching on presidents ranging from Jefferson to Nixon to Clinton, Roberts rejected those claims. He wrote that the court was reaffirming that “no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.”
Good to know.
Trump’s accounting firm also found itself caught up in the second case, Trump v. Mazars. Here, it was Congress that wanted records — from Mazars and Deutsche Bank, asserting that having them would “help guide legislative reform in areas ranging from money laundering and terrorism to foreign involvement in U.S. elections.” The president thought the three House committees, with their four subpoenas, just wanted to harass him. That’s a shabby assessment given the layers of suspicion he generates, though it’s fair to say that the Democratic majority in the House would be pleased to find actionable information.
The court, for its part, was interested in whether a subpoena for a president’s personal information goes beyond congressional authority. In more than 200 years of jurisprudence, it had never been called upon to address that specific question.
Roberts and the majority weren’t persuaded by the president’s arguments, but neither were they convinced that Congress had adequately considered the separation of powers in this case. Because of the lack of precedent, Roberts presented four guidelines for courts to use in parsing such circumstances, with the intent of keeping disputes as narrow as possible.
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In the end, with the term’s marquee cases decided, what do we have — we citizens of the United States — besides an election in four months?
We have a legislative branch that has been frustrated in its attempts to investigate this president as expediently as it wishes, but that has not necessarily been stifled in its scrutiny of any president.
We have a judicial branch guided by a chief justice who, even in these big cases, has successfully promoted a philosophy of minimalism.
And we have an executive who continues to believe that the nation’s affairs are no bigger than his own. After Thursday’s rulings came down, he tweeted — well, you know him. You can imagine what he tweeted.