WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday opened yet another front in what's become a bicoastal legal fight to keep his tax returns secret, suing New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance for subpoenaing the tax documents.
Trump is now in federal courts in New York, California, and Washington, DC, trying to block attempts by congressional Democrats and his state-level foes to get around his refusal to voluntarily release his tax returns. It's unusual to see a president personally involved in so much litigation — these are cases brought by Trump's personal lawyers, not the Justice Department — but they put the historically litigious Trump in familiar territory.
The latest case was filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. It challenges subpoenas that Vance issued to Trump's accounting firm, Mazars USA LLP, in August for eight years of Trump's tax returns, according to the New York Times. Those subpoenas are reportedly part of a criminal investigation by Vance's office into what role the president and his company may have played in orchestrating a hush money payment to adult film actor Stormy Daniels — who claims she had an affair with Trump — leading up to the 2016 election.
Court records show the case was filed Thursday morning, but the court didn't make a copy available until several hours later. Trump's attorneys didn't respond to requests for a copy earlier in the day, but one of the president's lawyers, Jay Sekulow, confirmed in a statement that it was related to the subpoenas from Vance's office.
"In response to the subpoenas issued by the New York County District Attorney, we have filed a lawsuit this morning in Federal Court on behalf of the President in order to address the significant constitutional issues at stake in this case," Sekulow said.
Danny Frost, a spokesperson for Vance, confirmed via email that they'd received a copy of the lawsuit. He said they would "respond as appropriate in court" and declined to comment further.
Trump has asked a judge for a temporary restraining order blocking Vance's office from enforcing the grand jury subpoena while the lawsuit goes forward. A judge set a hearing for Sept. 25, and Vance's office agreed to put the subpoena on hold until then.
According to the complaint, Vance's office issued a grand jury subpoena on Aug. 1 to the Trump Organization seeking a range of financial records related to payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal — another woman who claimed she had an affair with Trump — but that didn't include a demand for tax returns. On Aug. 29, Vance's office issued a grand jury subpoena to Mazars, and that included a request for the tax returns.
Evidence obtained through a grand jury subpoena is supposed to remain secret under New York law, but could come out later if the district attorney's office decided to pursue criminal charges.
Trump is arguing that the subpoena is unconstitutional because a sitting president cannot be criminally charged, and that means a president can't be subjected to "criminal process," such as a grand jury subpoena. His lawyers acknowledge that no court has directly ruled on that question, but they point to Justice Department guidelines and limits the US Constitution placed on when a president can be removed from office.
"The subpoena is a bad faith effort to harass the President by obtaining and exposing his confidential financial information, not a legitimate attempt to enforce New York law," the president's lawyers wrote.
Trump's lawsuits raise gnarly and largely unprecedented questions for courts to resolve about a sitting president's ability to sue to stop state officials and Congress from investigating him. In addition to the three lawsuits he's brought so far specifically challenging efforts to get his tax returns, he's filed two other cases contesting congressional subpoenas that seek a broader range of financial records from his accounting firm and banks that have done business with him, his family, and his companies.
Trump's personal lawyers and the Justice Department are also defending against a lawsuit brought by the House Ways and Means Committee in federal court in Washington challenging the US Department of Treasury's refusal to turn over his tax returns.
The president's latest lawsuit in New York comes one day after his lawyers appeared in federal court in Washington, DC, in a case he filed in July challenging a New York law, the TRUST Act, that would let House Democrats get his state tax returns from New York's taxation department.
In the DC case, Trump is suing the House Ways and Means Committee as well as New York's attorney general and the head of New York's taxation department. The judge heard arguments Wednesday about whether the DC court had authority to take up a claim against New York officials over the constitutionality of a New York law — the state attorney general's office is arguing such a claim could only be brought in New York.
House Democrats have yet to make a request for Trump's state tax returns under the TRUST Act, and New York officials agreed to delay acting on any future request until the judge rules on the DC-versus–New York issue. Over the course of a two-hour hearing on Wednesday, US District Judge Carl Nichols explored a series of hypothetical scenarios aimed at unpacking the connection, or lack of one, between New York and DC in the case — everything from whether it mattered if the head of New York's taxation department sent Trump's tax returns by mail or email, and never stepped foot in Washington, to whether Trump is still technically a New York resident, and, if so, whether that's relevant (presidents often keep their local residency while living in the White House).
House Democrats are set to file their own request to dismiss the lawsuit by Oct. 21. House General Counsel Douglas Letter told the judge Wednesday that they planned to argue that Congress was immune from any lawsuit challenging lawmakers' exercise of authority under the Constitution's Speech or Debate Clause. Letter noted that if Nichols ruled against them, they would immediately appeal.
On the other coast, meanwhile, Trump's lawyers appeared Thursday before a federal judge in Sacramento in yet another lawsuit he filed over his tax returns. The president's lawyers argued in favor of an injunction blocking a new California law, the Presidential Tax Transparency and Accountability Act, known as SB27, that would require presidential candidates to release their tax returns in order to appear on a primary ballot. The California Republican primary election is scheduled for March 3, 2020; under SB27, Trump would need to file his tax returns with state officials by Nov. 26, 2019 to qualify for the ballot, according to his lawsuit.
US District Judge Morrison England Jr. announced at the end of the 2.5-hour hearing that he would grant requests by Trump and other individuals and groups that sued to challenge SB27 — including the Republican National Committee — for an order blocking California officials from enforcing the law, according to the RNC's attorney Harmeet Dhillon. The judge did not immediately issue a written opinion.
"I'm thrilled on behalf of our clients," Dhillon told BuzzFeed News. "This law attempted to interfere with the First Amendment rights of California voters and the parties to select their standard-bearers."
Trump's personal attorney Jay Sekulow released a statement saying they were "encouraged" by England's announcement on Thursday.
"We look forward to the court’s written order. It remains our position that the law is unconstitutional because states are not permitted to add additional requirements for candidates for president, and that the law violated citizens’ 1st Amendment right of association," Sekulow said.
Jesse Melgar, a spokesperson for California Gov. Gavin Newsom, released a statement defending the need for SB27, but did not directly address England's announcement from the bench or say if the state would appeal a preliminary injunction.
"These are extraordinary times. States have a legal and moral duty to restore public confidence in government and ensure leaders seeking the highest offices meet minimal standards. The disclosure required by this law will shed light on conflicts of interest, self-dealing, or influence from domestic and foreign business interest," Melgar said.
This post has been updated with information about the outcome of arguments on Thursday in California.
This post has been updated with information about the schedule for arguments in the New York case.
This post has been updated with a link to a copy of the lawsuit and information about the president's arguments.