WASHINGTON — On Thursday, the Supreme Court handed down a pair of rulings in cases where President Donald Trump was seeking to keep others from obtaining his tax returns and private financial information.
Here’s seven questions and seven answers about what happened:
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1. Who was seeking Trump’s financial information, and why?
In one of the cases, it was the Democratic-led House of Representatives. The House had asked Trump’s bankers and accountants for a wide range of documents about his loans, his business partners, and his financial transactions. The House said it needed this information to consider future legislation about taxes, foreign interference in the U.S., or money laundering.
In the other case, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. was seeking records from Trump’s accountants, Mazars USA. Vance said his office is investigating whether state laws were broken when, just before the 2016 election, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen, paid off women who had claimed sexual affairs with Trump. Cohen was then reimbursed by the Trump Organization, Trump’s private company. Because of that, Vance said, Trump’s financial records might somehow illuminate what happened.
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2. Did Trump win?
In a legal sense, no.
In a pair of 7-2 rulings, the court rejected Trump’s attempts to cancel the subpoenas. It also rejected Trump’s argument in the Vance case, which was that a sitting president is simply immune from investigation by state-level prosecutors.
But in a political sense, the answer is yes.
That’s because Trump only has to win one more election, this fall.
And Thursday’s decisions made it very unlikely that voters will see his financial records before then — if they ever do.
The Supreme Court didn’t order anyone to surrender Trump’s records Thursday. Rather, it sent the two cases back to lower judges, with new instructions about how to treat the subpoenas. Trump’s lawyers can still raise new objections to them. And appeal if they lose. And appeal again.
Trump’s legal team has often seemed to play for delays, and that is unlikely to change now.
At a press briefing Thursday, White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said, “this was a win for the president,” even though Trump earlier in the day tweeted that the ruling in the Vance case was “Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!”
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3. What will the Manhattan District Attorney do now?
Vance issued a statement on Thursday calling the ruling “a tremendous victory … Our investigation, which was delayed for almost a year by this lawsuit, will resume,” Vance said.
But first, he will probably have to go back to court.
The Supreme Court rejected Trump’s claim that he has total immunity from investigation simply because he is president. But it said he could still challenge Vance’s subpoenas on other grounds — saying, for example, that Vance’s requests were too broad or burdensome to comply with.
Even if Vance wins, and obtains the documents, he will still be bound by grand-jury rules, which mean the documents will be kept secret. They might be made public some day, but only after somebody has been charged in the case.
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4. What will the House do now?
For the rest of 2020? Probably little in the way of getting documents. But as the election approaches, Democrats get a fresh opportunity to remind voters that Trump, unlike his predecessors, has tried to keep these details private, and took the effort all the way to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court also sent their case back to a lower court, saying that the House did have the right to seek evidence from Trump — but that, in this case, their requests were too broad. The House seems likely to keep pressing their case. “I am confident our committee ultimately will prevail,” said House Oversight Committee Chair Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y.
But the legal wrangling seems likely to last past the 2020 election, and even past the end of the current Congress in January. Already on Thursday, some members of the House were lamenting that their leaders had waited too long to seek these subpoenas — allowing Trump to use the courts against them.
“He may not be able to outrun the law,” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. “But he’s outrunning the clock.”
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5. If the public ever did get to see these financial documents, what might they learn?
A lot. They might be able to understand the loans, partners, investments and revenue of the business that Trump still owns, even in the White House. Even now, much of that detail is kept secret, or only self-reported by Trump’s company without outside verification.
The tax returns, in particular, might show Trump’s self-reported income, his charitable donations and any measures he used to minimize, avoid, or delay tax payments. One of the few Trump tax returns that has become public, from 1995, showed Trump reported a $916 million loss for that year — which might have allowed him to avoid paying any income taxes at all for the next 18 years, according to The New York Times.
The financial documents sought by the House might also illuminate Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank, which provided him with more than $300 million in loans over the last decade. They would show if — as Cohen once told Congress — Trump artificially inflated his assets to win bank loans. Trump has said Cohen is lying.
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6. Wait, didn’t Trump say years ago that he was going to release his tax returns?
He promised it back in 2012, when he was only considering a presidential run, and then again in 2015, when he actually did run. But he never did.
He is the only president — and the only major-party nominee — since the 1970s not to release his tax return.
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7. What’s his logic for not releasing them now?
During the 2016 campaign, Trump has said he can’t release the returns because they are “under audit,” though he has never provided proof of the audit, or proof that that prevents him from making his returns public.
In recent years, Trump has added another reason: he won the 2016 election without releasing his returns, which shows voters don’t care about them anyway. “Make it a part of the 2020 Election!” he wrote on Twitter in May 2019, apparently taunting Democrats to see if they care now.