Manhattan DA Argues Trump Can’t Assume Scope of Probe Involving His Tax Returns Is Limited

August 15, 2020 Updated: August 20, 2020

The Manhattan district attorney told a federal court judge that President Donald Trump can’t assume that the scope of the grand jury investigation involving his tax returns is limited to “hush” money payments made in 2016, while adding that the president also isn’t entitled to ask for information about the probe.

In a pair of court filings (pdf) on Aug. 14, New York County District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.’s legal team pushed back on Trump’s bid to persuade the court that the subpoena seeking his eight years of tax returns is overbroad and hence issued in bad faith, by claiming that the scope of the grand jury probe is limited to certain payments made by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen to two women in 2016.

Vance’s team argued that the assertion was “too thin a reed to stave off dismissal.” The Manhattan DA seeks to dismiss Trump’s second attempt to prevent the prosecutor from obtaining access to the tax returns from his accountant, Mazars USA. The district attorney issued a subpoena for those documents as part of a criminal 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 suggest that the scope of the Manhattan DA’s probe might be broader than what was previously known.

Last week, Trump’s legal team challenged Vance’s suggestion that it is pursuing an investigation into “possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization.” They argued that the prosecutor’s team is “still fishing for a way to justify his harassment of the President” when he cited several newspaper articles to justify his subpoena for the president’s tax returns.

Trump’s lawyer also wrote a letter to the presiding judge requesting a pre-motion conference to discuss whether Vance should be compelled to reveal details about his grand jury probe in order to show that each item in his subpoena is relevant to the probe.

Vance’s office responded to the letter through its own letter (pdf), arguing that Trump was “not entitled to discovery in a separate, civil lawsuit.”

“This, of course, is not how a grand jury functions,” the office’s general counsel Carey R. Dunne wrote in the letter.

In its attempt to convince the judge to dismiss Trump’s challenge, the DA’s office argued in its Aug. 14 filings that Trump’s team didn’t offer any persuasive argument for its assumption that the scope of the grand jury probe is limited. The office continued to suggest that the investigation’s scope might actually be broader than the 2016 payments, without providing details about the actual scope.

“Indeed, many investigations develop and expand over time,” Vance’s team wrote. “The [Second Amended Complaint] also asserts that ‘[a]ccording to published reports, the focus of the District Attorney’s investigation is payments made by Michael Cohen in 2016 to certain individuals.'”

“Whatever the newspapers reported—and regardless of whether those reports were accurate—they say nothing about the full scope of the investigation, just its purported focus,” they added.

“In short, the only non-speculative fact that Plaintiff has pleaded with respect to the scope of the grand jury’s investigation is the Office’s own explanation, appropriately generic, that it is looking at ‘business transactions involving multiple individuals whose conduct may have violated state law.'”

Trump has been fighting Vance’s subpoena since September 2019. The case went to the Supreme Court after lower courts denied Trump’s request for relief from the subpoena.

Trump’s lawyer argued before the Supreme Court that a sitting president has absolute immunity from state criminal subpoenas because compliance with them would impair the performance of his presidential duties. The federal government, which was also involved in the case, argued that a state grand jury subpoena for personal records of a sitting president should meet a higher standard of need.

The Supreme Court in July rejected (pdf) both arguments and stated that “no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.” However, the top court left the door open for the president to seek recourse, suggesting that Trump could still challenge the subpoena on other grounds.

Follow Janita on Twitter: @janitakan