Legal Battle Over Donald Trump's Financial Records, Tax Returns Begins in Supreme Court

For the first time since he became president, Donald Trump's personal financial dealings will be the subject of scrutiny for the Supreme Court.

Three cases involving Trump's financial records will be argued on May 12 and are set to be among the first in the Court's 230-year history to be heard via teleconference, an unprecedented precaution taken during the coronavirus pandemic.

The first two cases slated for argument, Trump v. Mazars USA and Trump v. Deutsche Bank, involve subpoenas issued by congressional committees. The records being sought by lawmakers are part of investigations into possible conflicts of interest and foreign influence.

Lower courts have upheld the subpoenas, but Trump's attorneys have asked the Supreme Court to intervene and reverse those rulings on the ground that Congress lacked a legitimate legislative purpose when it issued them.

The third case the court will hear, Trump v. Vance, is part of a New York grand jury investigation of criminal violations of state law. At the center of the probe are alleged hush-money payments made just before the 2016 election on behalf of Trump to two women who have alleged that they had extramarital affairs with him. Trump has denied he had such relationships with the women.

Again, the president requested that the Supreme Court hear the case after a lower court ruled against him. In a petition to the High Court last November, Trump's legal team argued that the "threat that state criminal process poses to a president cannot be overstated."

Rulings by the Court are expected by the end of June—right in the midst of the 2020 presidential election. Here's everything you need to know as the oral arguments begin.

The Documents at Stake

The biggest documents at play are Trump's tax returns, which he has refused to release to the public. He is the only president since Richard Nixon not to make his tax documents available. He's also the only president in the modern era not to divest his business interests.

The Manhattan district attorney's investigation seeks nearly a decade's worth of tax returns and other financial documents dating from 2011 to 2019. The congressional subpoenas also request tax records, among other financial statements.

The congressional subpoena from the House Oversight and Reform Committee demanded eight years of Trump's financial records from the accounting firm Mazars USA. The probe by the Intelligence and Financial Services committees sought more documents from two of Trump's major lenders, Deutsche Bank and Capital One.

Is Trump Really as Immune as He Claims?

While all three cases raise separate legal questions, Trump's team has largely argued that he is immune to investigation and indictment as a sitting president. In the Vance case, Trump lawyer William Consovoy previously argued that the president is so immune that he could shoot someone in the middle of Manhattan's Fifth Avenue and not be criminally investigated.

But experts say that argument is not exactly consistent with legal precedent—especially when it comes to the cases dealing with Congress.

Andrew Wright, a former Obama administration lawyer and current partner at K&L Gates, said that Trump's argument that Congress "has to justify its legislative purpose in a very well-defined way is not consistent with the prior treatments" of the issue by the courts.

The Manhattan district attorney's case is a bit more complex. The Department of Justice has held that presidents have immunity from criminal prosecution in federal cases during their term in office. Wright said he could "see the court extending that to state criminal law cases."

donald trump SCOTUS financial records cases
President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on May 1. The Supreme Court will hear three cases related to his financial records via teleconference on May 12. Erin Schaff/Pool/Getty Images

Former state and federal prosecutor Michael Stern said that based on the lower court decisions, the documents in question should have been handed over to investigators.

"Congress and the Manhattan district attorney should already have Trump's financial records. Lower courts have ruled in their favor. But with his two Supreme Court appointments, the president has secured a Trump-loyalist majority," he said.

Stern added, "Whatever the Court decides, don't expect it to be unified. The one thing I'm comfortable predicting is a splintered Court."

Will the Supreme Court Dodge the Cases?

At the end of April, the Supreme Court ordered both parties and the Department of Justice's solicitor general to provide additional briefs on "whether the political question doctrine" applies to the cases.

This doctrine refers to the practice in which courts leave especially heated or contentious issues to be resolved by the government's elected branches, Congress or the White House. Stern noted that the request "suggests that some of the justices want to avoid ruling on this divisive issue."

If the court decides not to rule on the case, experts say it would not be in Trump's favor.

"If the court is not going to stop them, they could release the documents," Wright said. "In that sense, the president's interests would be the losers in this case."

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Michael Stern as a former senior counsel to the House of Representatives. He is a former state and federal prosecutor.