In Depth

Supreme Court rules on fight over Donald Trump’s taxes

Highest US court says New York prosecutors can see president’s records

The US Supreme Court has ruled that Donald Trump’s financial records can be examined by prosecutors in New York.

The decision came after the court ruled in a related case that the president did not have an obligation to share the information with Congress.

Trump has been criticised for keeping his tax returns private, unlike his predecessors. His lawyers argued that “he enjoyed total immunity while in office” and that Congress had no valid justification to force the publication of the tax records, the BBC reports.

How did the tax returns battle originate?

Trump ignored nearly half a century’s tradition when he refused to release his tax returns during his 2016 campaign for the White House.

The move caused widespread condemnation, as well as launching a number of theories about why he would want to keep the information so close to his chest.

These theories were bolstered when, in October 2018, it was revealed in that New York authorities were investigating claims that the president took part in “dubious” tax schemes. There is currently another separate pending request from Trump to block a subpoena from a New York prosecutor for his tax returns.

In 2019, during his explosive testimony in front of Congress, ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen added fuel to the fire when he labelled Trump “a cheat”, and claimed that the president had engaged in efforts to reduce his real estate tax burden by artificially inflating and deflating his assests. At the time, Trump accused Cohen of lying.

Why do people want Trump’s tax returns?

Those pushing for the release of Trump’s tax returns say it is crucial to establish whether there is any conflict of interest between Trump’s official duties as president and his multiple business dealings.

Cohen’s testimony led Lily Batchelder, a professor at the New York University School of Law, to write in The New York Times that “there is ample reason to fear that conflicts of interest have infected [Trump’s] approach to tax policy”.

The newspaper found, in a separate investigation in October 2018, that Trump recieved “at least $413 million in today’s dollars from his father’s real estate empire, much of it through tax dodges in the 1990s”.

A spokesperson for Trump said at the time: “The president’s father gave him an initial $1 million loan, which he paid back. President Trump used this money to build an incredibly successful company as well as net worth of over $10 billion, including owning some of the world’s greatest real estate.”

But Democrats are “concerned with the president’s compliance with federal tax laws”, The Guardian says, “as well as whether he or his family personally benefited from the tax overhaul passed by Republicans and signed by Trump in 2017”.

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What happens next?

The Supreme Court has now ruled by a majority of seven to two that the president does not have absolute immunity from criminal investigation.

“Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our Court established that no citizen, not even the president, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” the court said. “We reaffirm that principle today.”

However, the court also ruled that Congress has “significant, but not limitless, power to request the president’s personal information”, the BBC says. That dispute has been returned to the lower courts, a decision that BBC North America reporter Anthony Zurcher argues is “a political win for Trump”. 

“Those wanting to see President Donald Trump’s tax returns before the November presidential election shouldn’t hold their breath”, Zurcher writes. 

The prosecutors having access to the records is unlikely to result in a speedy resolution to the case, Zurcher adds, meaning that for Trump, “by pushing the final day of reckoning further down the road, it’s a political win”.

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