The Supreme Court handed a short-term political win to Trump on Thursday when justices punted on rulings that will likely keep his financial records out of public view until after the November election. But while the rulings spared Trump that immediate scrutiny, they were ultimately a long-term loss to his claims of sweeping executive power. The decisions fenced in Trump’s authority by denying both his claim to be immune from prosecution as President and his insistence that the separation of powers between Congress and the executive limits how deeply Congress can reach into his personal papers.
Trump seethed in response, taking the judicial ruling as a personal attack. “Courts in the past have given ‘broad deference’ BUT NOT ME!” he wrote on Twitter. Trump described being investigated by the Manhattan district attorney as “a political prosecution,” adding on Twitter: “Now I have to keep fighting in a politically corrupt New York. Not fair to this Presidency or Administration!”
In a pair of rulings, a majority of justices said New York prosecutors can see Trump’s financial documents in an investigation into alleged hush money payments, denying Trump’s claim that as president he has total authority to halt those records from being handed over. In similar fashion, President Bill Clinton was ordered by the high court to provide evidence in a sexual harassment suit and President Richard Nixon was forced to give investigators Oval Office tapes.
“No citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority, adding that Trump can litigate the relevance of the documents requested and the breadth of the subpoena, which could eat up months of court time.
In a separate decision on Thursday, the court sent Congress’s demand for many of the same financial documents back to a lower court for continued litigation over the scope of the demands. “No one is above the law, not even the President of the United States,” said California congressman Adam Schiff, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, in response to the ruling that allowed the committee’s request for Trump’s financial documents to move forward. “Nor are they immune from congressional oversight or criminal investigation, no matter how much they endeavor to delay or evade them.”
Even if Congress eventually prevails, the public won’t see those documents for many months, most likely allowing Trump to delay their disclosure until after the election. The House of Representatives will have to convince a federal judge to approve their claims which “eats up a lot of time” in the political cycle and is “a dramatic expansion of the judicial role,” says Chris Bryant, a constitutional law professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. “It gives him what he most needed politically, which is to avoid pre-election disclosure,” Bryant says. “I have very little doubt they are high-fiving over there at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Trump’s personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, described both rulings as wins for Trump, even as the President was throwing a tantrum on Twitter. “We are pleased that in the decisions issued today, the Supreme Court has temporarily blocked both Congress and New York prosecutors from obtaining the President’s financial records,” Sekulow said in a statement. We will now proceed to raise additional Constitutional and legal issues in the lower courts.”
Trump’s immediate political interests may have been served by the decisions, but the rulings deal a blow to his ongoing campaign to expand the power of the executive branch. Since becoming President, Trump and his lawyers have repeatedly refused to cooperate with congressional investigations, limiting access to Administration officials and documents during the House’s impeachment of the President in December and his eventual acquittal by the Senate in February for encouraging the president of Ukraine to dig up dirt on presidential rival Joe Biden. Trump has pushed in recent months to place aides seen as loyal to Trump personally across the executive branch, leading a West Wing effort to seed new senior officials at the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department and Office of Personnel Management, as the election approaches. Trump has also removed inspectors general at Health and Human Services, the State Department, and the watchdog overseeing over $1 trillion in pandemic stimulus funds.
The Supreme Court has occasionally pushed back against the president’s actions, despite him having packed it with ideological allies since taking office. ”Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” Trump Tweeted on June 18, after the court ruled Trump hadn’t properly ended the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and would have to launch a new effort to strip protections from people brought to the country illegally as children. Earlier in the month, Court also rebuffed Trump’s efforts to challenge so-called “sanctuary” laws in California that limit local cooperation with federal deportation officers, allowing a lower court ruling that such laws were legal to stay in place.
The Court rulings come at a politically fraught moment for the President. The polling shows Trump’s reelection prospects are fading and most Americans feel the country is heading in the wrong direction. Coronavirus infections are on the rise and the nation is grappling with the economic fallout of the pandemic and a historic reckoning over persistent racial injustice and police brutality against Blacks. The confluence of crises may explain why Trump, in addition to complaining about the Court, has also peppered his Twitter feed in the past 24 hours with videos of crowds of supporters in South Carolina and Maine holding Trump signs and waving flags.