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Supreme Court will consider Trump’s bid to keep financial records sealed

President Trump spoke Friday during a meeting with Paraguay President Mario Abdo Benitez in the Oval Office.
President Trump spoke Friday during a meeting with Paraguay President Mario Abdo Benitez in the Oval Office.Evan Vucci/Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to decide whether President Donald Trump may shield disclosure of his financial information from congressional committees and a New York prosecutor, raising the prospect of a landmark election-year ruling on a president's immunity from investigation while he is in office.

Trump asked the court to accept the cases, and they will be heard in March, with a ruling before the court's session ends in late June. It means that whatever the outcome of Trump's separate impeachment proceedings, the controversies over investigations into Trump's conduct will continue into the heart of the presidential election campaign.

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Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and three Democratic-led congressional committees have won lower-court decisions granting them access to a broad range of Trump's financial records relating to him personally, his family and his businesses. The court on Friday said it would consider all three cases.

Unlike other modern presidents and presidential candidates, Trump has not released his tax returns. He and his personal lawyers have mounted a vigorous effort to keep that information private and defeat attempts to obtain the records from financial institutions and his accounting firm.

"We are pleased that the Supreme Court granted review of the President's three pending cases," said Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Trump, in a statement released Friday. "These cases raise significant constitutional issues."

In a statement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., signaled disappointment that the high court's decision to take the cases would mean further delay for the Democrats' investigation into the president's finances, but she said her caucus remains confident that the court will "uphold the Constitution, the rulings of the lower courts and ensure that Congressional oversight can proceed."

"As the Courts have made clear," Pelosi said, "there are no special privileges for information unrelated to the President's official duties, but squarely related to Congress's need for legislation and oversight."

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The Supreme Court's decision to get involved represents a historic moment that will test the justices and the Constitution's separation-of-powers design. It is the first time the president's personal conduct has come before the court, and marks a new phase in the investigations that have dogged his presidency.

The Supreme Court's action came the same day a House committee approved articles of impeachment against the president, but these issues do not concern that process. It does add another potential blockbuster ruling to a Supreme Court term that already contains politically controversial cases on abortion, gun rights, the fate of undocumented "dreamer" immigrants brought to the country as minors and whether federal civil rights laws protect LGBT workers.

The court includes two Trump nominees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and it will draw inevitable comparisons with the dramatic decisions on presidential power the court rendered against Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton. In both cases, justices they had nominated to the court voted against them.

The committees and Vance had told the Supreme Court that the subpoenas followed long-established precedents, and there was no need for delay. But the justices traditionally are solicitous when a president raises questions concerning the separation of powers.

Trump's lawyers told the court that the lower-court rulings were wrong, and that prosecutors and congressional committees should not be allowed to launch wide-ranging investigations of the president, especially without the Supreme Court's review.

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One case involves Vance's attempt to enforce a grand jury subpoena issued to the president's accountants for eight years of Trump's tax records.

A federal investigation of the president is one thing, Trump's lawyers told the court, but "politically motivated subpoenas like this one are a perfect illustration of why a sitting president should be categorically immune from state criminal process."

They added: "State and local prosecutors have massive incentives to target [the president] with investigations and subpoenas to advance their careers, enhance their re-election prospects or make a political statement."

A district judge and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled against Trump, saying Vance's subpoena was proper and the president's longtime accounting firm, Mazars USA, must comply.

Vance's office had agreed to hold off on enforcing the demand until the Supreme Court decided whether it would get involved.

Vance has said his office needs the records for its investigation into alleged hush-money payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to Stormy Daniels, an adult film actress, and to former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Both women said they had affairs with Trump several years ago, and Vance's office is examining whether any Trump Organization officials filed falsified business records, in violation of state law, related to the payments. Trump has denied the affairs and any wrongdoing.

Vance told the Supreme Court in opposing Trump's petition that "there is no real public interest at stake here at all; this case instead involves (Trump's) private interest in seeking his own and others' immunity from an ordinary investigation of financial improprieties independent of official duties."

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Trump attorney William Consovoy has argued that while in the White House, Trump has "temporary presidential immunity" not just from prosecution, but also from investigation. At the appeals court hearing in New York, Consovoy said in response to a judge's question that the president, for as long as he is in office, could not be investigated even for shooting someone on the streets of Manhattan.

The 2nd Circuit disagreed, saying the prosecutor's request was not out of the ordinary and that the president did not even have to take action to comply.

"The only question before us is whether a state may lawfully demand production by a third party of the president's personal financial records for use in a grand jury investigation while the president is in office," wrote Chief Judge Robert Katzmann.

He added in a footnote:

"We note that the past six presidents, dating back to President Carter, all voluntarily released their tax returns to the public. While we do not place dispositive weight on this fact, it reinforces our conclusion that the disclosure of personal financial information, standing alone, is unlikely to impair the president in performing the duties of his office."

The House Oversight and Reform Committee won access to Trump's financial records in a separate case. The committee said it is looking into possible conflicts of interest and irregularities in the president's financial disclosure reports, and whether additional legislation is needed.

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A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit voted 2 to 1 that the subpoena followed legal precedents.

Trump's lawyers objected. Under the lower court's decision, "any committee of Congress can subpoena any personal information from the president; all the committee needs to say is that it's considering legislation that would force Presidents to disclose that same information," wrote Consovoy. "Given the temptation to dig up dirt on political rivals, intrusive subpoenas into personal lives of presidents will become our new normal in times of divided government."

A third case also comes from the 2nd Circuit, where judges upheld Congress's broad investigative authority, and ordered Deutsche Bank and Capital One to comply with subpoenas for the president's financial information from two House committees, Intelligence and Financial Services.

The committees are seeking more than 10 years of financial records on Trump, his three oldest children - Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump - and the president's businesses.

The committees say they need the records as part of broad investigations into Russian money laundering and potential foreign influence involving Trump.

Trump’s attorneys have argued the committees’ moves are simply to harass the president and would serve no legislative purpose. The subpoenas could yield every debit card transaction and check written by Trump, his children and even his grandchildren, they said.