Federal Judge Dismisses Trump’s Latest Bid to Shield Tax Returns From Manhattan DA

August 20, 2020 Updated: August 20, 2020

A federal judge on Thursday dismissed President Donald Trump’s newest effort to block the Manhattan district attorney from gaining access to eight years of the president’s tax returns and other financial records.

In his 103-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero ruled that Trump’s latest attempt to block New York Country District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.’s subpoena for his tax returns was a roundabout way for the president to invoke immunity from judicial processes.

Trump’s legal team had previously argued before the Supreme Court and lower courts that a sitting president has absolute immunity from state criminal subpoenas because compliance with them would impair the performance of his presidential duties. The top court in July had already rejected the argument, saying that “no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.”

Although the Supreme Court rejected Trump’s arguments, it left the door open for Trump to seek recourse by challenging the subpoena on other grounds. The president’s legal team filed a second challenge against the subpoena in late July.

Marrero, a Clinton appointee, said Trump’s new claims that the Manhattan district attorney’s subpoena is overbroad and hence issued in bad faith had already been thoroughly argued in the president’s first complaint, and by seeking to re-argue the same issues would “prolong the President’s noncompliance with the grand jury’s demand for the documents in dispute.”

“That strategy potentially would enable the clock to run on applicable statutes of limitations, risk the loss of witnesses and evidence and thus possibly foreclose law enforcement concerning any crimes under grand jury investigation,” Marrero wrote (pdf).

He said that the president’s move embodies “a novel application of presidential immunity to protect the executive branch from judicial process.”

“At its core, it amounts to absolute immunity through a back door, an entry point through which not only a President but also potentially other persons and entities, public and private, could effectively gain cover from judicial process,” the judge wrote.

He added that the president’s latest challenge had to be thrown out because his claims “do not allege sufficient facts to warrant a different judgment.”

“That conclusion holds with special force insofar as granting the relief the President requests would effectively constitute an undue expansion of presidential immunity doctrine potentially implicating adverse public concerns,” the judge wrote.

Thursday’s ruling represents the latest setback for Trump, who has been fighting Vance’s subpoena since September last year. The prosecutor’s subpoena seeks the president’s tax returns and financial documents as part of a grand jury probe.

It was widely believed that Vance was investigating hush money paid to two women during the 2016 presidential campaign: adult film performer Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. But recent court filings by Vance’s office suggest that the scope of the Manhattan DA’s probe might be broader than was previously known.

Shortly after Marrero’s ruling was issued, Trump’s legal team filed an emergency Notice to Appeal (pdf) and a request to stay the Thursday ruling pending the appeal (pdf).

In their motion for the stay, Trump lawyers told the court that they disagree with Marrero’s decision and believe that there is a likelihood that the decision could be reversed on appeal.

“Given the seriousness of this dispute, the status quo should be preserved so that the Second Circuit and Supreme Court can hear the President’s claims,” Trump’s lawyers wrote.

Trump responded to the ruling on Thursday, telling reporters at the Oval Office that the case would “probably end up back in the Supreme Court.”

“This is a continuation of the witch hunt, the greatest witch hunt in history. There’s never been anything like it, where people want to examine everything you’ve ever done to see if they can find that there’s a comma out of place. No president has ever had to go through this,” he said.

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