Federal Judge said president’s broad claim of immunity from all criminal investigations is at odds with the Constitution. But an appeals court blocked any handover of the records for now.
The developments escalate the president’s battle to keep his finances under wraps, despite having promised during his 2016 White House run that he would disclose his tax returns.
At issue is a request from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R Vance Jr that Trump’s accounting firm turn over eight years’ worth of his business and personal tax returns for an investigation into the payment of hush money to two women who claimed to have had affairs with the president.
US District Judge Victor Marrero turned down Trump’s attempt to keep the tax returns under wraps, saying the president was making a “categorical and limitless assertion of presidential immunity”.
The president’s lawyers immediately appealed to the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals, and it granted a temporary stay of the judge’s ruling “pending expedited review” by the court.
“The Radical Left Democrats have failed on all fronts,” Trump fumed on Twitter, “so now they are pushing local New York City and State Democrat prosecutors to go get President Trump. A thing like this has never happened to any President before. Not even close!”
The criminal investigation in New York is unfolding with Trump already under siege on Capitol Hill from a fast-moving impeachment drive set off by his attempts to get Ukraine’s leader to investigate his political rival Joe Biden. The judge’s ruling marked the latest in a string of setbacks for the president in the past couple of weeks.
Trump’s legal team had challenged the order to release the documents, which was made in September, arguing that sitting presidents are immune to criminal investigations and investigators should wait until after Trump left the White House. The president’s lawyers claim the investigation led by Vance, a Democrat, is politically motivated.
Marrero called Trump’s claim of broad immunity “extraordinary” and “an overreach of executive power”.
“As the court reads it, presidential immunity would stretch to cover every phase of criminal proceedings, including investigations, grand jury proceedings and subpoenas, indictment, prosecution, arrest, trial, conviction, and incarceration,” Marrero wrote in his 75-page decision. “That constitutional protection presumably would encompass any conduct, at any time, in any forum, whether federal or state, and whether the president acted alone or in concert with other individuals.”
The judge added that such a “sweeping doctrine finds no support in the Constitution’s text or history,” and would effectively leave the president, his family and his businesses “above the law”.