A federal judge has denied a particularly bold effort by President Trump to keep his tax returns a secret. The ruling comes just one month after Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. issued a subpoena to Mazars USA, the president’s accounting firm, requesting the provision of Trump’s tax returns both personal and corporate. The subpoena is part of Vance’s ongoing probe into Trump’s reimbursement of Michael Cohen, his former lawyer and fixer, for making hush payments to former adult film actress Stormy Daniels during his 2016 election campaign.
Trump’s lawyers came up with a rather ambitious defense, arguing that a sitting president cannot be investigated for any crimes at all while in office. They were joined by lawyers from the Department of Justice, who claimed that the president faced “irreparable harm” if his tax returns were exposed. Vance asked the government to dismiss the lawyers’ arguments and allow his office to “pursue its investigation free from interference and litigious delay.”
Judge Victor Marrero of Manhattan federal court wasn’t having any of Trump’s defense. In a stinging 75-page rebuke, Marrero made clear that presidents aren’t above the law, saying that the government’s legal strategy was “repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values.” He described the defense’s argument as an “extraordinary claim” and further said that his court “cannot endorse such a categorical and limitless assertion of presidential immunity.”
While Trump’s DOJ has claimed before that presidents have temporary immunity, thus preventing federal agents from investigating the president on criminal charges, that stipulation doesn’t apply to local departments like Vance’s office. Trump directed Cohen to make the payments to Daniels in order to buy her silence on an affair she has said she had with Trump in 2006; Trump denies the tryst.
Despite Marrero’s ruling, the president’s tax returns will remain private for now. Trump’s lawyers immediately appealed Marrero’s decision, and an appeals court has granted a temporary stay on the order. And even if Vance’s office does manage to get ahold of the documents, they will only be made public if they become evidence in a criminal trial.
The Vance case is just one of many fronts on which Trump’s legal team is fighting against transparency. So far, the president’s lawyers have successfully held off both the New York state Senate as well as the U.S. House of Representatives on requests for Trump’s tax records, and they’ve also parried a law in California that attempted to make tax return disclosure a prerequisite for the state’s presidential primary.
There’s a lot more at stake here, beyond the president offering hush money to a former porn star to cover a purported affair. Many believe that Trump’s tax returns could show evidence of malfeasance in a variety of different areas, including possible payments from or debts owed to foreign governments that could be influencing Trump’s foreign policy decisions. The president’s refusal to hand his records over — breaking with a decades-held norm — has only helped fuel suspicions that he has something to hide.