For just about a New York minute, prosecutors in that state were set to get their hands on eight years’ worth of President Donald Trump’s tax returns.
On Monday, a federal judge rejected Trump’s effort to block a grand jury subpoena issued for the tax returns by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., meaning that Trump’s accountants would have to turn them over by 1 p.m. Eastern time. But Trump’s lawyers quickly appealed, and the ruling was put on hold by a federal appeals court.
Vance’s effort to gain access to Trump’s tax returns is just one of many launched by Democrats in court or in legislatures around the country. There’s an obvious political element to some of these efforts, like the California Legislature’s misbegotten bill to require presidential candidates to release their tax returns to get onto the primary ballot. Some Democrats clearly hope the returns will be rife with damaging details about Trump’s income sources, tax avoidance strategies, indebtedness to foreign interests or some such.
I don’t think presidential candidates should be compelled to release their tax returns in order to run for office; instead, I’d leave it to voters to decide whether to disqualify someone who refuses to release his or her returns. I’m more persuadable that sitting presidents should have to release their tax returns, or at the very least that the annual financial disclosures now required should be made considerably more detailed.
But the issues raised by the efforts to quash Vance’s subpoena, which relates to a probe of how Trump and his company reported the hush-money payments to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, couldn’t be more serious. According to U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero’s 75-page ruling, Trump argued that sitting presidents enjoy “absolute immunity from criminal process of any kind.” In other words, not only can presidents not be put on trial while in office, even for behavior before they were elected (the focus of Vance’s probe); under Trump’s view, they can’t even be investigated, nor can evidence about their alleged crimes be gathered.
That shield could potentially undercut the prosecution of accomplices and co-conspirators, Marrero argued. It also could serve as a form of Get Out of Jail Free card, given that the statute of limitations for crimes committed before a president’s term began (or early in the term) could expire before the person who committed them leaves office.
“This court cannot endorse such a categorical and limitless assertion of presidential immunity from judicial process as being countenanced by the nation’s constitutional plan,” Marrero wrote. “The expansive notion of constitutional immunity invoked here to shield the president from judicial process would constitute an overreach of executive power.”
There is a balance that has to be struck between the president’s ability to carry out the duties of the office and the need for justice to be served, and as Marrero noted, the courts have worked over the years to find the right balance. Generally speaking, that means allowing investigations to move forward, while holding off indictments and prosecutions until after a president leaves office.
What Trump is arguing for isn’t a balanced approach, it’s carte blanche for the president. As on so many other issues, the current occupant of the White House shows why we can’t afford to grant that kind of license.
Jon Healey is the Los Angeles Times’ deputy editorial page editor.