Former President Trump’s two-year courthouse battle to keep secret his financial records and his tax returns came close to ending Monday morning, in a one-sentence order issued by the Supreme Court. There was no sign of any dissent, and there was no explanation.
This does not mean that the public will be able to view those records, at least not until the New York state prosecutor who demanded access to them decides to pursue criminal charges against the former President, any of his family or associates, or the Trump Organization. Then, the contents of the records may be used as evidence of crime. For the time being, only the members of a secret grand jury will be able to see the files, which date back to 2011.
The Supreme Court’s action was not a final ruling against Trump or anyone else now under investigation by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. The order was simply a refusal to block enforcement of the grand jury subpoena pending a new appeal that Trump’s lawyers have said they intend to filed at the Supreme Court.
Although his plea for a delay in enforcement argued that the harm to his privacy will be completed just as soon as the prosecutor and the grand jury look at the documents, he still has a right to ask the Supreme Court to grant full review of his new claim that he has been mistreated by the federal courts. At the same time, the Court’s refusal to postpone enforcement made it seem highly unlikely that it would later take on the case for further review.
The reality was that the Court’s action was in no way a surprise. After failing in earlier efforts to make the dispute one about lofty constitutional principles, including protecting the power of the presidency itself, the latest effort by his lawyers was basically confined to two quite narrow issues of state law dressed up as a new presidential grievance of mistreatment by the legal system.
His new court filing, for example, had argued that “the Court rarely denies review when a President seeks” it, “and it has never denied review when a President claims, as here, that he is being subjected to unlawful legal process.”
But it appears that the Court did not see this challenge on that grand level, but rather as a test of the two issues he specifically raised under New York state law: that the subpoena for his records was too broad, and that it was issued in “bad faith” by the New York prosecutor. Lower courts had rejected both claims, with the trial judge in New York commenting that Trump’s challenge was nothing more than an attempt to get presidential immunity “through a back door.”
State law issues are seldom reviewed by the Court, unless they conflict with some provision of federal law or raise some question under the U.S. Constitution.
In effect, the Court’s order treated the former President as, in essence, an ordinary citizen caught up in a state criminal case. In fact, when the Court last July turned down Trump’s sweeping claim of presidential immunity to even be investigated by a state prosecutor, the main opinion opened with these sentences: “In our judicial system, ‘the public has a right to everyman’s evidence.’ Since the earliest days of the Republic, ‘every man’ has included the President of the United States.”
That opinion went on to reject his immunity claim, and to rule that the president had no right to have a subpoena demanding his evidence judged by a stricter standard than would apply to any ordinary person.
Although turning Trump aside on those broad points, the Court did send the case back down to lower courts to give Trump a new chance, now that the immunity issue was out of the case, to make any challenges of a kind that any other citizen could make. It was in response to that new review that Trump’s lawyers made his claims of too much breadth and “bad faith” in the subpoena’s issuance.
The Vance probe of Trump apparently began in 2018 as an inquiry into the legality of “hush money” payments that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, had paid to a former Trump paramour to silence her during the presidential campaign in 2016. The probe, however, has apparently widened considerably since then into a menacing inquiry into potential fraud and other violations of state criminal law.