WASHINGTON – A pair of Supreme Court decisions focused on whether President Donald Trump can shield his taxes from scrutiny handed his campaign a temporary reprieve Thursday, even as Democrats signaled they might make an election-year issue out of the court’s warning that not even presidents are “above the law.”
The 7-2 decisions, both written by Chief Justice John Roberts, allowed Democrats to claim a legal victory: Trump, the court ruled, cannot withhold his tax returns and other financial records from prosecutors. But in practical terms, the rulings meant that the court battle over disclosure would continue – likely well past the Nov. 3 election.
“While defeated on his claim that he is above the law, Trump is now beyond the law until after the November election,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. “He may not be able to outrun the law, but he is outrunning the clock – whining all the way.”
Minutes after the rulings, Trump blasted the court for rejecting his central legal argument that he had absolute immunity from subpoenas, saying he should have been afforded more “deference.” Trump later said he was “satisfied” with one decision, which temporarily blocks Congress from seeking the tax records, and “not satisfied” with a separate one requiring the material to be turned over to prosecutors in New York. He dismissed the underlying effort to get at the records as “purely political.”
While both the White House and Democratic leaders seized on the cases as a win, neither side completely got what they wanted – limiting their ability to use the rulings as a political weapon. Democrats had sought a wholesale repudiation of Trump’s effort to block congressional subpoenas; Trump wanted the court to curb subpoenas in a potentially embarrassing hush-money investigation.
In the end, the court handed down a pair of nuanced decisions that didn’t break along traditional ideological lines and left many questions in legal limbo.
Democrats noted that one of the highly anticipated decisions, requiring Trump to comply with subpoenas in New York, eviscerated an argument by Trump’s lawyers that a president is immune to such requests. And that could leave an opening for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, or an outside Democratic group to emphasize a lack of transparency in coming weeks.
“The ‘no one is above the law line’ from the Supreme Court is going to make a nice ad for Biden,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist. “But the sad reality from this decision is that absent a stunning turn of events, the American public is not going to be able to see his tax returns before the election, which is outrageous.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., described the cases as “not good news” for Trump. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called them a “devastating blow.” Congressional Republicans joined Trump in dismissing the decisions. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, told Fox News the court “punted” on what he described as a case motivated by politics.
Roberts, who secured votes from Trump’s own nominees to the court – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – found the president had no broad power to brush aside subpoenas from investigators just because of his position in the White House. The Manhattan district attorney is seeking the information as part of an investigation into alleged hush-money payments made during the 2016 election to protect Trump.
Democrats said the tax cases, which come as polls show Trump trailing Biden in battleground states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, would reprise debates about a lack of transparency. But they also said Trump’s taxes would likely be less potent for voters than the administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic fallout from shutting down schools and businesses.
“Any day spent talking about Trump fighting to hide his taxes from the public is not a good one for him,” said Josh Schwerin of Priorities USA Action, a group that supports Democrats. “That said, our focus in ads will continue to be Trump’s failed leadership on the coronavirus pandemic, the ongoing recession and health care.”
Biden, the former vice president, has released his own tax returns, revealing he has made more than $15 million since leaving the Obama administration. Trump broke with decades of tradition in 2016 by declining to release his tax records as a candidate, initially signaling he would and then saying he couldn’t because he was under audit.
In a preview of how the candidates may frame the issue for voters, Biden retweeted a post Thursday in which he touted the disclosure of his own taxes and admonished Trump to “release yours or shut up.” Trump described the decisions as political, arguing that courts previously had given presidents “broad deference” but “NOT ME!”
“This is all a political prosecution,” Trump wrote.
In previous battles for presidential documents or testimony, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously against Presidents Richard Nixon in 1974 and Bill Clinton in 1997, with their nominees to the court in agreement. Those decisions led to Nixon’s resignation and Clinton’s impeachment, though he was not removed from office.
The subpoenas are part of a criminal probe by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance into payments Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, said were made to adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal.
Both women claimed they had affairs with Trump, which he denied.
In a separate case, the court temporarily blocked congressional investigators from gaining access to many of the same records. It sent the effort by House Democrats to obtain Trump’s taxes and other financial documents back to a lower court for further review of the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.
Several political analysts downplayed the political significance of the rulings, saying the court had essentially maintained the status quo from the 2016 election.
“Anyone who had a strong opinion on Trump’s tax returns already knows exactly how they’re voting,” predicted Republican strategist Matt Gorman.
Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, agreed.
“I’m past the point where I think revelations about the president – whether it’s a tell-all book or whether it’s the tax returns – are going to move a lot of voters,” he said. “There is always this waiting for (an) ah-ha moment where the curtain is going to be thrown back. I don’t buy it, not in terms of public opinion.”
Contributing: Michael Collins, Courtney Subramanian, Christal Hayes