It was a broad rejection of Trump’s assertions of the breadth of his power as chief executive, and the president made clear his displeasure in a string of furious tweets shortly after the decisions were released. Beyond the big-picture argument about constitutional authority — an argument Trump almost certainly embraces only as it pertains to checks on himself — the Vance ruling in particular poses a threat to the president. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has already pledged to push forward with a probe, which might result in criminal charges against Trump or the Trump Organization.
But as a political fight, it looks like the battle for Trump’s tax returns is over. And there’s good reason to think that Trump won.
It’s worth remembering that Trump repeatedly assured the public that he would release his tax returns if elected. Those assurances predated his actual 2016 candidacy by years. When he explored a possible 2012 run, for example, he assured CNN’s John King that he would “be doing my tax returns at the appropriate time.” Later in that same cycle, he tried to use his tax returns as leverage, offering to release them if President Barack Obama released his college transcripts.
As his formal announcement neared in early 2015, he insisted he'd release his taxes.
“I have no objection to certainly showing tax returns,” he told conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt that February.
A year later, the same message. Asked during an interview on the “Today” show to say when he would release his returns, he estimated that it would be “probably over the next few months.”
“It’s very complicated stuff,” Trump said, “but we’ll be releasing that.”
It didn’t take long for that to change. Before the end of February 2016, Trump had a new excuse, offered during a presidential primary debate.
“I want to release my tax returns but I can’t release it while I’m under an audit,” he said. “We’re under a routine audit. I’ve had it for years, I get audited. And obviously if I’m being audited, I’m not going to release a return.”
This became his line, over and over again. Experts noted that there was no legal proscription against releasing returns that were under audit and that every presidential candidate back to Richard Nixon had released that documentation. (Nixon, in fact, released returns that were under audit.)
“When the audit’s finished,” Trump said in March 2016, “I’ll release my tax returns.”
Given Trump’s track record regarding honesty, questions arose about whether his returns actually were being audited. In response, he released a statement from his accounting firm saying that recent years’ returns, in fact, were. When it was noted that this admission meant that past years, no longer under audit, could be released, Trump still demurred.
After he won the election, the excuse offered by Trump and his defenders changed: Voters had decided he should be president without seeing the records, and the insistence that he should release the information was either sour grapes, a foolish consistency or both.
Then Democrats retook the House in the 2018 midterm elections and launched wide-ranging investigations into the president and his personal business. Multiple House committees, now under Democratic leadership, sought records detailing Trump’s financial holdings and history. In September 2019, Vance launched a similar quest.
As the Democratic investigations geared up, I spoke with Lisa Kern Griffin, a law professor at Duke University, to determine how successful their efforts were likely to be, given the White House’s immediate stonewalling on fulfilling requests.
“I think that they can slow-walk it,” Griffin said of the administration, “and that their intent is actually to try to run out the clock until the end of the Congress itself and, of course, up until the election in 2020.”
This question of whether Trump could or should refuse to provide information to the House became one of the articles on which he was impeached last December. But as a tactic, it worked: The House was forced to turn to the courts to get Trump to comply, a move that led to Thursday’s court ruling.
Notice, though, that the Supreme Court did not say Trump needed to hand over the records. It said, instead, that the lower courts should answer that question, almost certainly meaning that the issue won’t be resolved before the November elections. It’s probably likely that the question won’t be resolved before the current Congress adjourns next January — at which point current subpoenas expire, unless renewed.
In other words, despite his tweeted frustrations, Trump is likely to have won the political fight against the House by ensuring his records do not fall into the hands of House Democrats before the November presidential election.
The Manhattan case is different. It’s possible that Vance pushes forward with a probe that could lead to an indictment targeting Trump or his private business before Election Day. Trump and his team, though, will understandably throw up every possible roadblock to prevent Vance from injecting an October (or November) surprise into the election. This has been the game plan from the outset, clearly: Say what you need to and fight when you have to.
The president's lead personal attorney, Jay Sekulow, released a statement soon after the decisions, expressing his pleasure that “the Supreme Court has temporarily blocked both Congress and New York prosecutors from obtaining the President’s financial records.” As expected, he pledged to keep fighting against the effort to release the returns in lower courts.
Again, it’s that “temporarily” that provides Trump the likely political win. If the temporary delay is only four months — it is good enough to get him past Election Day. But it may not be that long. Former U.S. attorney and current University of Alabama law professor Joyce Vance (no relation to the D.A.) points out that the pace at which courts move is largely up to the courts. If they want to fast-track something, it’s fast-tracked. And if they fast-track hearings that reject Trump’s defenses against Vance, things might still become sticky for the president’s reelection.
If it takes more than four months to resolve — as Sekulow and Trump clearly hope — it’s not that the risk evaporates. He may still be in legal trouble if Vance starts poking around but, if Trump wins reelection, he has a much better position from which to deflect any emergent charges.
At this point, though, the debate moves away from the release of the returns themselves and into what the returns actually indicate. If Vance does manage to fast-track his probe and obtains an indictment before Election Day, the story isn’t really about the returns, it’s about the alleged criminal activity the returns helped to flesh out.
That’s the most pyrrhic of victories for Trump. In the context of his long fight to keep his returns from deciding his political fate, though, it’s also the victory that represents his worst-case scenario.