By Lawrence Hurley and Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday firmly rejected President Donald Trump’s argument for sweeping presidential immunity and ruled that a New York prosecutor can obtain his financial records but prevented – at least for now – Democratic-led House of Representatives committees from getting similar documents.
Both 7-2 rulings were authored by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts. The court made it clear that a sitting president cannot evade a criminal investigation, ruling that the subpoena issued to Trump’s long-term accounting firm, Mazars LLP, for various financial records to be turned over to a grand jury as part of a criminal investigation can be enforced.
But the court sidestepped a major ruling on whether three House committees could also obtain Trump financial documents under subpoena, giving Trump at least a short-term win. Litigation will now continue in lower courts in both cases.
In both rulings, Roberts was joined by the four liberal justices as well as Trump’s two conservative appointees to the court, Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch. Conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito both dissented.
“This is a tremendous victory for our nation’s system of justice and its founding principle that no one – not even a president – is above the law,” said Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a Democrat, in relation to the ruling in his case.
Vance and the House committees all issued subpoenas to third parties for the records, not the Republican president himself.
Trump turned to Twitter complained about the rulings, writing on Twitter: “Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference’. BUT NOT ME!” He added, “This is all a political prosecution … and now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York. Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!”
The New York case ruling does not mean the documents will be handed over immediately because of expected wrangling in lower courts. A final outcome could be delayed in both cases until after the Nov. 3 election in which Trump is seeking a second term in office.
“We will now proceed to raise additional constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts,” said Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats would not stop investigating Trump and would press forward in seeking to enforce the subpoenas.
“Congress’s constitutional responsibility to uncover the truth continues, specifically related to the President’s Russia connection that he is hiding,” Pelosi said, in reference to the contention that Trump’s financial records could show such an entanglement.
NO ‘ABSOLUTE’ IMMUNITY
Roberts rejected both the broad arguments for presidential immunity made by Trump’s lawyers and the sweeping arguments made in favor of the House’s ability to investigate the president.
Trump’s argument that he was immune from any criminal process “runs up against the 200 years of precedent establishing that Presidents, and their official communications, are subject to judicial process,” Roberts wrote in the New York case.
“We affirm that principle today and hold that the president is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need,” Roberts added.
Roberts also rejected the suggestion that the decision would subject future presidents to harassment by local prosecutors, noting that the court in 1997 rejected a similar argument made by President Bill Clinton when he faced a civil lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, a woman who accused him of making unwanted sexual advances.
“Given these safeguards and the court’s precedents, we cannot conclude that absolute immunity is necessary or appropriate,” Roberts wrote.
Roberts’ analysis of the congressional subpoenas hinged on the competing political interests between different branches of government.
“Congressional subpoenas for the President’s personal information implicate weighty concerns regarding the separation of powers,” Roberts wrote. “Neither side, however, identifies an approach that accounts for these concerns.”
Unlike other recent presidents, Trump has refused to release his tax returns and other documents that could provide details on his wealth and the activities of his family real-estate company, the Trump Organization. The content of these records has remained a persistent mystery even as he seeks re-election.
House committees issued subpoenas seeking Trump’s financial records from his longtime accounting firm Mazars LLP and two banks, Deutsche Bank and Capital One.
As part of a criminal investigation by Vance’s office, subpoenas were issued to Mazars for financial records including nearly a decade of Trump’s tax returns to be turned over to a grand jury in New York City.
The investigation launched by Vance’s office in 2018 into Trump and the Trump Organization was spurred by disclosures of hush payments to two women who said they had past sexual relationships with him, pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Trump and his aides have denied the relationships.
In the litigation over the House subpoenas, Trump argued that Congress lacked a valid purpose for seeking his records and that disclosure of the material would compromise his and his family’s privacy and distract him from his duties.
In the New York case, Trump’s lawyers argued that under the Constitution he is immune from any criminal proceeding while serving as president. In a lower court hearing, Trump’s lawyers went so far as to argue that law enforcement officials would not have the power to investigate Trump even if he shot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue.
The House Oversight Committee in April 2019 issued a subpoena to Mazars seeking eight years of accounting and other financial information in response to the congressional testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer. Cohen said Trump had inflated and deflated certain assets on financial statements between 2011 and 2013 in part to reduce his real estate taxes.
The House Financial Services Committee has been examining possible money laundering in U.S. property deals involving Trump. In a separate investigation, the House Intelligence Committee is investigating whether Trump’s dealings left him vulnerable to the influence of foreign individuals or governments.
(Reporting by Jan Wolfe and Lawrence Hurley in Washington; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)