NEW YORK (AP) — Lawyers for President Donald Trump and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. are facing off in court Wednesday in a fight over the president’s tax returns, and his claim to be immune from any criminal investigation as long as he is in the White House.
Trump’s legal team has asked a federal judge to block a state grand jury subpoena seeking the returns, issued as part of Vance’s investigation into the Trump Organization’s involvement in buying the silence of two women who could have embarrassed the president with stories of extramarital affairs during his 2016 campaign.
In court filings, they have claimed that a sitting president is “not subject to the criminal process” while he is in office.
They’ve also assailed the investigation as politically motivated, saying Vance, a Democrat, is “charging down this blatantly unconstitutional path” purely to harass the president.
Attorneys for Vance say the investigation is valid, and that if the court fully accepts Trump’s argument, it would mean that presidents would not have to comply with grand jury subpoenas regarding their conduct out of office, and could also extend that immunity to associates and employees.
“The law provides no such sweeping immunity,” they wrote.
The fight is playing out the day after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump over allegations that he tried to coerce the government of Ukraine into launching an investigation of one of his possible election foes, Democrat Joe Biden.
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to investigate presidents and remove them from office, but the law over whether a sitting president can be indicted and prosecuted in a state or federal court is unsettled.
Vance launched his investigation after federal prosecutors ended their investigation into payments that Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, arranged for the porn actress Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal to keep them quiet during the presidential race. The Trump Organization later reimbursed Cohen for his work.
Vance’s inquiry is said to be examining whether the payments or reimbursements broke any state laws.
The Trump Organization complied with an earlier round of subpoenas seeking records related to its dealings with Cohen, who pleaded guilty to separate federal campaign law violations, but Trump balked when the prosecutors subpoenaed his accounting firm, Mazars USA, for eight years of his tax returns.
“Had the District Attorney not acted in such an irresponsible and abusive fashion, the President likely would have cooperated here too,” the attorneys wrote in papers submitted to U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero on Tuesday.
Federal prosecutors joined Trump in asking Marrero to temporarily block the grand jury subpoena seeking tax returns.
They say in papers filed late Tuesday in Manhattan federal court that Trump has raised “weighty constitutional issues” in trying to stop the subpoena and they want to review them and decide whether to join the fight.
“To the extent that enforcement of the subpoena may adversely affect federal interests of constitutional dimension, those effects could not be redressed after the fact,” the prosecutors said in asking for a “short stay of the subpoena’s enforcement.”
Marrero will listen to lawyers as they try to persuade him during a hearing Wednesday morning. A ruling may be immediate or come within hours since Trump’s attorneys are seeking emergency relief in the form of a temporary order preventing a turnover of the tax returns while the legal issues are studied in more depth.
However Marrero rules, his decision is almost certain to be appealed.
University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias said the White House strategy was likely aimed at delaying litigation rather than airing out thorny legal issues.
“The White House has a blanket ‘no’ on everything,” he said. “At some point, they’re not going to be able to stop all of them. I think they’re just trying to run out the clock, get him re-elected.”