Supreme court rejects Trump bid to block tax records from prosecutor

Court’s order is a win for the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr, who has been seeking Trump’s tax records since 2019

Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on 6 August 2020.
Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on 6 August 2020. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP
Donald Trump on the South Lawn of the White House on 6 August 2020. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP
in New York and agencies

First published on Mon 22 Feb 2021 11.02 EST

In a significant defeat for Donald Trump, the supreme court on Monday declined to step in to halt the turnover of his tax records to a prosecutor in New York City.

The court’s action was the apparent culmination of a lengthy legal battle that had reached the high court before. Trump said it was part of “the continuing political persecution of President Donald J Trump”.

Having left the White House on 20 January, Trump has lost the legal protections of office. He faces jeopardy on multiple fronts.

In New York, on top of the investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, the state attorney general, Letitia James, is investigating the Trump Organization.

In Georgia, prosecutors are investigating Trump’s attempts to strong-arm local Republican officials into overturning his election defeat.

Trump has also been sued for inciting the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January, when a mob of his supporters sought to stop the counting of electoral college votes. Lawmakers were threatened and five people died, one an officer of the Capitol police.

Trump’s tax records were once the holy grail of US political and investigative reporting, after he refused to follow common practice and release them during his run for president in 2016.

In September, under the headline “Trump taxes show chronic losses and years of tax avoidance”, the New York Times published sensational details, among them that Trump paid just $750 in federal income tax in 2016 and 2017.

The records at issue in Monday’s supreme court ruling in the New York City case are not supposed to become public, as they are part of a criminal investigation. But the high court’s action is a blow to Trump nonetheless because he has long fought on so many fronts to keep such records shielded from view.

In his statement on Monday, Trump repeated previous comments about the investigation, calling it “a fishing expedition” and “a continuation of the greatest witch-hunt in history”.

The supreme court waited months to act. The last written brief in the case was filed on 19 October but before issuing its order a court including three Trump appointees waited through the election, Trump’s challenges to his defeat, which were almost all laughed out of court, and a month after Trump left office.

The court offered no explanation for the delay. The legal issue before the justices did not involve whether Trump was due special deference because he was president.

The court’s order is a win for Cyrus Vance Jr, the Manhattan district attorney who has been seeking the tax records since 2019. Vance, a Democrat, subpoenaed the records from the Mazars accounting firm that has long done work for Trump and his businesses. Mazars said it would comply but Trump sued to block the release.

Vance’s office had said it would be free to enforce the subpoena and obtain the records in the event the supreme court declined to step in and halt the records’ turnover. It was unclear when that might happen.

In a statement on Monday, Vance said only: “The work continues.”

Trump called the investigation “totally Democrat-inspired in a totally Democrat location”; alleged it was controlled by the Democratic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, “a heavily reported enemy of mine”; and repeated his claim that he won the 2020 presidential election against Joe Biden, which he demonstrably did not.

Trump insisted: “These are attacks by Democrats willing to do anything to stop the almost 75 million people (the most votes, by far, ever gotten by a sitting president) who voted for me in the election.”

Biden got more than 81m ballots, more than 7m more than Trump, and won the electoral college by 306-232, a result Trump insisted was a landslide when it fell in his favour over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

The Manhattan case involves a grand jury subpoena for more than eight years of personal and corporate tax records. Vance has disclosed little about what prompted him to request them. In one court filing last year, prosecutors said they were justified in demanding the records because of public reports of “possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization”.

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal reported that Vance was looking into loans on properties including Trump Tower, on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

Another part of the investigation involves payments to two women – the adult film star and director Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal – to keep them quiet during the 2016 presidential campaign about alleged affairs which Trump denies.

In a 7-2 ruling last July, the justices rejected Trump’s argument that the president is immune from investigation while he holds office or that a prosecutor must show a greater need than normal to obtain the tax records. Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, whom Trump nominated, joined that decision. It was issued before Trump’s third nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, replaced the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

As part of its July decision, the high court returned the Vance case and a similar case involving records sought by Congress to lower courts. The court prevented the records from being turned over while the cases proceeded.

After that high court ruling in the Vance case, Trump’s attorneys made additional arguments that his tax records should not be turned over. They lost again, in federal court in New York and on appeal. Trump had sought to put those rulings on hold.