AP WASHINGTON – A powerful House committee and New York prosecutors separately investigating President Donald Trump’s financial dealings urged the Supreme Court Thursday to affirm their right to examine years of his tax returns and financial records.
The filings by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance followed arguments by the president’s lawyers that the records should be withheld – in the New York case because they claim Trump is immune from criminal prosecution while in office.
“Petitioner’s assertion of absolute presidential immunity is foreclosed by this court’s precedent, which conclusively establishes that ‘(no person) in this country is so high that he is above the law,”http://www.usatoday.com/” Vance responded.
The House committee’s request came less than a week after Trump’s lawyers sought to block a federal appeals court’s decision that said the records from the accounting firm Mazars USA must be released.
Douglas Letter, the House of Representatives’ legal counsel, argued that Trump’s legal team has not “demonstrated that any harm they will suffer if Mazars responds to the subpoena outweighs the severe harm that Congress would suffer by being deprived of information it urgently needs to exercise its constitutional functions.”
Letter argued the records are needed to help determine “whether senior government officials, including the president, are acting in the country’s best interest and not in their own financial interest … , whether federal agencies are operating free from financial conflicts and with accurate information, and whether any legislative reforms are needed to ensure that these fundamental principles are respected.
“The justices are expected to decide in the coming days whether to grant Trump’s effort to delay and potentially reverse the lower court’s edict. They also are considering the request to block New York City prosecutors from getting the records as part of a criminal probe into payments made to two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump years before his election in 2016.
The president has denied those allegations. Taken together, the cases involve broad constitutional questions. One focuses on the breadth of Congress’ investigative and legislative powers; the other involves the untested issue of whether presidents, while they are in office, are subject to criminal investigations by local prosecutors.Last week’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit called for Mazars USA to release the records to the House committee by Nov. 20. But Chief Justice John Roberts agreed to a brief delay this week while the two sides file legal papers in the dispute.
In his response, Letter argued that the circuit court order should not be blocked while it is appealed. “It cannot be the case that the president has the right to stall any congressional subpoena to which he objects through the months or years that it takes for a challenge to work its way through the lower courts,” he said. “If that were the case, the House –which has only a two-year term – would be radically constrained in its ability to conduct oversight or to collect information about the executive branch.”
Trump’s lawyers have called the House subpoena an unprecedented test of the constitutional separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches. They claim the committee is engaging in law enforcement, not its legislative function.”It is the first time Congress has issued a subpoena, under its legislative powers, to investigate the president for illegal conduct,” the attorneys argued in reference to the House investigation.
“And, for the first time, a court has upheld a congressional subpoena to the president for his personal papers.”Trump dropped the practice of past presidents and presidential candidates in 2016 when he refused to release his tax returns, claiming his hands were tied because of a federal audit. He since has continued to maintain their secrecy.In the New York case, Vance urged the justices not to stand in the way of what he called “a garden-variety investigation of purely private conduct.”
“The only question here is whether a third-party custodian of the president’s financial records may be subpoenaed for those records when they are relevant to a secret grand jury investigation and completely unrelated to any official action (and in fact were largely created before the president took office),” he said.
Trump’s lawyer, Jay Alan Sekulow, told the justices last week that prosecutors are seeking “reams of President Trump’s private financial records for the express purpose of deciding whether to indict him for state crimes.””For the first time in our nation’s history, a state or local prosecutor has launched a criminal investigation of the president of the United States and subjected him to coercive criminal process,” he wrote.
Vance’s subpoena seeks records and communications related to payments to two women: adult film star Stephanie Clifford, whose stage name is Stormy Daniels, and former Playboy magazine model Karen McDougal. Both claimed to have had sexual affairs with Trump years ago, which he has denied.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, paid $130,000 to Daniels to buy her silence about her alleged affair with Trump. The payment was made shortly before the 2016 presidential election. Cohen subsequently pleaded guilty to tax evasion, bank fraud and violations of campaign finance law in connection with the payment.
The owner of the National Enquirer acknowledged that it paid McDougal $150,000 to squelch her account and avoid damaging Trump’s presidential bid. Cohen coordinated with the company on that effort to “suppress the model’s story so as to prevent it from influencing the election,” court records show.
Vance argued that a swift resolution of his case is “essential to avoid further disruption of the grand jury’s ongoing investigation.”
“Each day that compliance with the Mazars subpoena is delayed increases the likelihood that – as a result of this lawsuit – criminal conduct may go unpunished, giving petitioner a de facto victory on the merits of his sweeping immunity claim and giving other individuals under investigation similar immunity from prosecution,” he said.