Rejecting an “extraordinary claim” of legal immunity by the president, a federal judge has ruled Donald Trump must provide his tax returns to the Manhattan district attorney investigating his financial role in the Stormy Daniels hush-money scandal. While this decision could ultimately force Trump’s financial interests into the public eye, the ruling is already stayed, pending appeal.
The case arises out of a grand jury subpoena for Trump’s personal and business tax records. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance is investigating whether any laws were broken when Trump, or perhaps the Trump Organization, reimbursed Trump’s fixer/lawyer Michael Cohen for the money paid to secure the silence of adult film actress Stormy Daniels, who has alleged a sexual relationship with Trump. Cohen is presently serving a federal sentence for this scheme, which court documents indicate Trump directed.
In Monday’s ruling, district court judge Victor Marrero rejected Trump’s assertion that “the person who serves as President, while in office, enjoys absolute immunity from criminal process of any kind.” In scathing language rarely seen in court decisions, Marrero wrote that the president’s claim was “repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values.”
The judge asks the reader of his ruling to, “consider the reach of the President’s argument,” which, he elaborates, “would stretch to cover every phase of criminal proceedings, including investigations, grand jury proceedings and subpoenas, indictment, prosecution, arrest, trial conviction, and incarceration.” The court, Marrero writes, cannot endorse “such a categorical and limitless assertion of presidential immunity,” which would place Trump, and potential co-conspirators, “in fact above the law.”
The judge reserves special scorn for a pair of memos produced by the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, which argue that a sitting president cannot be subjected to routine criminal proceedings. These legal opinions were treated as binding by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in deciding not to bring criminal obstruction of justice charges against Trump in his Russia investigation, referring the matter to Congress instead.
“The DOJ Memos,” writes Marrero, “have assumed substantial legal force as if their conclusion were inscribed on constitutional tablets etched by the Supreme Court.” He insists that the weight they have been given is “not warranted,” arguing that “the DOJ Memos do not constitute authoritative judicial interpretation of the Constitution concerning those issues” and instead rely on hypothetical and “hyperbolic horrors about the consequences to the Presidency and the nation as a whole,” were the president subject to law enforcement.
Marrero concludes that the president is, in fact, constrained by and subject to the laws of this country, and that competing interests must be weighed in assessing any claim of immunity. In this case, Marrero writes, Trump’s interests in the confidentiality of his financial records are “far outweighed by the interests of state law enforcement officers and the federal courts in ensuring the full, fair and effective administration of justice.” The court, Marrero concludes, is “not persuaded” that complying with the subpoenas in this case “would substantially impair the President’ s ability to perform his constitutional duties.”
If the Manhattan district attorney is ultimately successful in this fight, Trump’s tax returns could still remain secret, under the rules of grand jury evidence and proceedings. A separate fight to make the tax returns public, between the executive branch and House investigators, is ongoing.