NEW YORK (AP) — A federal judge Monday emphatically rejected President Donald Trump’s challenge to the release of his tax returns to New York prosecutors, saying the president’s broad claim of immunity from all criminal investigations is at odds with the Constitution. But an appeals court blocked any handover of the records for now.
At issue is a request from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. that Trump's accounting firm turn over eight years' worth of his business and personal tax returns for an investigation into the payment of hush money to two women who claimed to have had affairs with the president.
U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero turned down Trump's attempt to keep the records under wraps. The president's lawyers immediately appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted a stay of the judge's ruling pending an expedited review.
"The Radical Left Democrats have failed on all fronts," Trump fumed on Twitter, "so now they are pushing local New York City and State Democrat prosecutors to go get President Trump. A thing like this has never happened to any President before. Not even close!"
The criminal investigation in New York is unfolding with Trump already under siege on Capitol Hill from a fast-moving impeachment drive set off by his attempts to get Ukraine's leader to investigate his political rival Joe Biden. The judge's ruling marked the latest in a string of setbacks for the president in the past couple of weeks.
Trump's lawyers have said that the investigation led by Vance, a Democrat, is politically motivated and that the request for his tax records should be stopped because he is immune from any criminal probe as long as he is president.
But the judge called Trump's claim of broad immunity "extraordinary" and "an overreach of executive power."
"As the court reads it, presidential immunity would stretch to cover every phase of criminal proceedings, including investigations, grand jury proceedings and subpoenas, indictment, prosecution, arrest, trial, conviction, and incarceration," Marrero wrote. "That constitutional protection presumably would encompass any conduct, at any time, in any forum, whether federal or state, and whether the President acted alone or in concert with other individuals."
The judge said he couldn't accept that legal view, "especially in the light of the fundamental concerns over excessive arrogation of power" that led the founding fathers to create a balance of power among the three branches of government.
In a statement, Trump personal lawyer Jay Sekulow said only that he was pleased by the appeals court stay.
Trump has steadfastly refused to make his tax returns public, breaking from a tradition set by presidents and White House candidates decades ago. He has also gone to court to fight House subpoenas issued to his bank for various personal financial records, including his tax returns. That dispute is also before the federal appeals court.
In yet another effort to pry loose Trump's tax records, California recently passed a law requiring candidates for president or governor to turn over their returns dating back five years, or else they cannot appear on the state's primary ballot. A federal judge blocked the law this month, saying it is probably unconstitutional.
Vance began his probe after federal prosecutors in New York completed their investigation into payments that Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, arranged to be made to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal to keep them silent during the presidential race. The Trump Organization later reimbursed Cohen.
Cohen is serving a three-year prison sentence for crimes that included campaign finance violations in connection with the hush money.
Trump was never charged, though prosecutors said publicly that he was aware of and directed the illegal payments. Justice Department policy has long been that sitting presidents cannot be charged criminally.
Grand jury proceedings and records in New York are secret. If Vance gains access to Trump's returns through a grand jury investigation, that doesn't mean their contents will be disclosed publicly.
It is unclear what Trump's returns might have to do with the criminal investigation.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this story.