Trump asks U.S. Supreme Court to prevent release of his tax returns

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump on Thursday asked the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday to reverse a lower court ruling that directed his longtime accounting firm to hand over eight years of his tax returns to New York prosecutors.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a joint news conference with Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 13, 2019. REUTERS/Tom Brenner/File Photo

Trump appealed a Nov. 4 ruling by the New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that prosecutors can enforce a subpoena demanding his personal and corporate tax returns from 2011 to 2018 from accounting firm Mazars LLP.

“In our petition, we assert that the subpoena violates the U.S. Constitution and therefore is unenforceable. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will grant review in this significant constitutional case and reverse the dangerous and damaging decision of the appeals court,” said Jay Sekulow, one of Trump’s lawyers.

The legal questions include whether the subpoena violates the part of the U.S. Constitution that lays out the power of the president.

The office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a Democrat, is seeking the returns as part of a criminal investigation into Trump and the Trump Organization, the president’s family real estate business.

Trump’s lawyers have said he cannot be subjected to any criminal process while he remains president, a broad interpretation of presidential immunity. Even if he is not immune, the subpoena is not valid because Vance has not shown any specific need for the information, Trump’s lawyers argued.

“There has been broad bipartisan agreement, for decades if not for centuries, that a sitting president cannot be subjected to criminal proceedings,” Trump’s lawyers wrote.

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Vance’s investigation involves alleged hush money payments to two women prior to the 2016 election who said they had sexual relationships with Trump, which he denies. Those payments were made to Stormy Daniels, a porn star whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, with the help of Trump’s now-imprisoned former lawyer Michael Cohen.

If the justices decline to hear Trump’s appeal, the lower court ruling would stand, clearing the way for Vance to obtain the documents.

If they opt to take up the appeal, the justices then must decide whether to hear the case in their current term, which ends in June, or in their next term that begins in October 2020, likely pushing any decision until after the November 2020 presidential election.

Vance agreed not to seek enforcement of the subpoena while Trump appealed the matter on an expedited schedule.

Trump, who built a real estate empire with his New York-based business before becoming president, also faces an impeachment inquiry in the Democratic-led U.S. House of Representatives.

In a separate case in which the president has unsuccessfully fought efforts by House Democrats to obtain his financial records from Mazars, Trump’s lawyers are due to file an emergency application at the Supreme Court on Friday, Sekulow said.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Oct. 11 ruled in favor of the House.

The same court on Wednesday declined to rehear that case, prompting Trump to turn to the high court.

The court’s 5-4 conservative majority includes two justices Trump appointed: Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and Neil Gorsuch in 2017. Trump has prevailed at the Supreme Court on major issues such as his travel ban on people entering the United States from several Muslim-majority countries, but some legal experts have predicted that he may not fare as well on cases focusing on his personal conduct.

The House impeachment inquiry focuses on Trump’s request in a July phone call for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate a domestic political rival, Joe Biden, the former vice president and a top contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination to face Trump.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld and Brendan Pierson; Editing by Will Dunham