The US Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that Donald Trump’s financial records could be turned over to prosecutors in New York, dealing a blow to a president who has broken with decades of tradition by keeping his tax returns secret.
The US high court said the president did not have immunity from a criminal grand jury investigation run by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, which last year subpoenaed financial records held by Mr Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA.
But in a second case, the high court temporarily blocked similar subpoenas issued by Congress. Both decisions pointed towards further litigation in the pair of the cases, with the court sending the subpoenas back to the lower courts for additional proceedings.
With four months until the November election, the decisions may mean there will be no public revelations about Mr Trump’s financial affairs during an already difficult re-election battle — he has refused to release his tax returns, unlike other presidents and presidential candidates in the modern era.
Mr Trump’s appointees to the court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were in the majority in both cases, which were decided on a 7-2 vote.
Chief Justice John Roberts, delivering the court’s majority opinion in the Manhattan case, said: “Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our court established that no citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding.
“We reaffirm 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.”
Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance said: “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.”
Mr Trump decried the decision but vowed to continue fighting.
“This is all a political prosecution. I won the Mueller Witch Hunt, and others, and now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York. Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!” he tweeted, referencing the Russia probe conducted by former special counsel Robert Mueller.
The president, a real estate tycoon and reality television star, came into office with an international business empire that has drawn claims he could be susceptible to influence peddling by foreign governments and questions about whether Russian money had flowed into his companies.
Mr Trump did not divest his holdings when he became president, instead moving his assets into a trust. His two sons continue to run the Trump Organisation, which operates a hotel in Washington among other locations. The president frequently visits his properties to play golf and at times host foreign leaders.
Three committees in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives had subpoenaed years of records relating to Mr Trump, his businesses and his family from Deutsche Bank, Capital One and Mazars.
Deutsche Bank has financed many of Mr Trump’s business ventures in recent decades. The German lender opened its doors to Mr Trump in the late 1990s even as many US banks stopped dealing with his businesses after defaults on loans in several high-profile instances.
The congressional committees said they needed the information to consider legislation on foreign influence over US elections, foreign money laundering and conflicts of interest.
Daniel Hunter, a spokesman for Deutsche Bank, said on Thursday: “Deutsche Bank has demonstrated full respect for the US legal process and remained neutral throughout these proceedings. We will of course abide by a final decision by the courts.”
Mr Vance subpoenaed records from Mazars for an ongoing grand jury investigation related to the Trump Organisation, the New York-based family business.
The Manhattan district attorney is investigating payments made in 2016 to two women who claimed they had affairs with Mr Trump, who has denied the affairs and any wrongdoing. The president’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty in 2018 in federal court to campaign finance violations stemming from the payments.
Capital One said in a statement: “We intend to comply with the final decision when issued.” Mazars did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Mr Trump sued to block Deutsche Bank, Capital One and Mazars from turning over the records. His lawyers argued that the subpoenas constituted harassment on the part of Congress and that a sitting president should be immune from any sort of criminal process, such as the Manhattan subpoena.
Most of the judges who previously heard Mr Trump’s arguments have responded with scepticism, even apparent disdain at times, as they repeatedly ruled against him at the district and appeals court level.
The Department of Justice has supported the president through the litigation but adopted a narrower position at the Supreme Court, arguing that the subpoenas should be subject to greater scrutiny because they involve a sitting president.
The court’s decision in the Manhattan case on Thursday largely dismissed the president’s argument of immunity from the criminal process. Mr Kavanaugh and Mr Gorsuch filed their own separate opinion concurring in the judgment for the Manhattan case.
However, Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, in dissent said the president could avoid enforcement of the subpoena if he could show that he was “unable to comply because of his official duties”.
In the congressional case, the court appeared more sympathetic to Mr Trump’s arguments about the risks of giving Congress free rein to request a president’s personal documents.
“Congress could declare open season on the president’s information held by schools, archives, internet service providers, email clients, and financial institutions,” wrote Mr Roberts, also delivering the majority’s opinion in that case.
Though the court rejected arguments for a heightened standard of review, it ordered the lower courts to look again at the subpoenas and potentially narrow their scope.