Unlikely either a grand jury, Congress or the public will gain access to any incriminating financial records prior to the Presidential Election
UPDATE 8/4/20: Subsequent court orders/legal filings suggest NY grand jury may get records by September. Will there be an October Surprise?...
By Ernest A. Canning on 7/9/2020, 1:23pm PT  


"Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our Court [Chief Justice John Marshall] established that no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding. We reaffirm that principle and hold that the President is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas seeking his private papers nor entitled to a heightened standard of need." --- Chief Justice John Roberts, 7 - 2 majority opinion in Trump v. Vance, July 9, 2020

In Trump v. Vance, the President of the United States sued to block Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance's subpoena of Donald Trump's accounting firm Mazar's USA. The subpoena seeks financial records that may expose criminal violations of NY law. Those potential violations include, but are not limited to, the sworn allegations presented by Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, that the President falsified loan applications and other financial documents.

The fact that the Supreme Court, as observed by Justice Brett Kavanaugh in his concurring opinion in Vance, "unanimously" agreed that "a President does not possess absolute immunity from a state criminal subpoena" is great news for those who are concerned about the threat the Trump administration poses to the survival of the rule of law. However, the Court's decision to remand the case to the District Court where President Donald J. Trump "may," per the majority opinion, "raise further arguments as appropriate" makes it unlikely that a New York grand jury will acquire the potentially incriminating records that might otherwise justify the issuance of a criminal indictment prior to the November 3. 2020 election.

Given the majority's conclusion, in Vance --- that the President's right to object to compliance with a criminal subpoena is no greater than the rights enjoyed by all private citizens --- it's unlikely Trump will prevail at the District Court level. However, the remand will allow Trump's legal counsel to seek further delays via stay requests associated with future appeals.

In a companion case, Trump v. Mazars USA, LLP --- in which Trump sued to block several Congressional Committees from obtain Trump's tax and other financial documents as part of their legislative oversight --- the Court vacated a District Court order compelling Trump to turn over financial records to Congress. Although the Court, in this case, left open the possibility that the District Court could again order the same financial records to be turned over to Congress after careful consideration of Separation of Powers issues. In this case as well, it is now highly unlikely that the records would be forthcoming to Congress prior to the Election.

The net result is that the Supreme Court has probably deprived the U.S. electorate of access to potentially incriminating financial records prior to the pivotal Presidential Election. That doesn't bode well for small "d" democratic accountability, which can only be accomplished when the electorate is "well informed". That's especially ironic given that even President Richard M. Nixon conceded that We the People have a right "to know whether or not their President is a crook."

UPDATE 8/4/20: Subsequent court orders, an expedited briefing schedule and legal filings suggest that a Manhattan grand jury may actually receive the withheld financial records by early September.

In a July 16 order [PDF], U.S. District Court Judge Victor Moreno adopted the parties' agreed upon expedited schedule, to wit: Trump was to file a second amended complaint by July 27. Vance could answer or move to dismiss by Aug. 3. Vance timely filed a motion to dismiss [PDF]. Trump has until Aug. 10 to file a brief in opposition to the motion to dismiss; Vance until Aug. 14 to file a reply.

On July 17, the Supreme Court issued an order granting Vance's request that the Supreme Court's July 9 decision be effective immediately --- as opposed to the usual 25 days after it was issued.

In his July 16 order, Judge Morero recited the following with respect to Vance's legal posture:

Each of [the President's] potential arguments must be understood first and foremost in the context of the Supreme Court's rejection of a heightened standard for the issuance of a standard of a state criminal subpoena to a sitting President. While the District Attorney does not contest that the President should have an opportunity to advance additional "appropriate" claims supported by factual allegations, consistent with the Supreme Court's opinion, his challenges to the Mazars subpoena must be considered in light of the principle that a President making such challenges stands "in nearly the same situation with any other individual."[Citation]. The President's proposal attempts to elide that standard; indeed, [he] expressly invites this Court to conduct a heightened-scrutiny inquiry drawn from the concurring opinion that was utterly rejected by the majority decision. Equally important, it overlooks the fact that he has already substantially advanced similar allegations in the [First] Amended Complaint, which this Court rejected.

The President states that he may argue that the subpoena "is motivated by a desire to harass or is conducted in bad faith…or that the subpoena is meant to 'manipulate' his policy decisions or to retaliate against him for official acts.' But this Court has already found there was no demonstrated bad faith, harassment, or any other unusual circumstance that would call for equitable relief. And this Court has rejected the President's claim that there was any evidence of a 'secondary motive' that goes beyond good faith enforcement of criminal laws.

In his erudite motion to dismiss Trump's Second Amended Complaint, which was co-authored by Walter E. Dellinger, III, a Duke Law Professor who had previously served as an Assistant Attorney General and as the head of the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel, Vance lays out the reasons why the Second Amended Complaint must be dismissed and the records promptly produced.

Trump's newest filing, Vance asserts, merely "repeats a conspiratorial assertion [the President] has unsuccessfully pressed for nearly a year to all three levels of the federal courts." The only "new" allegation is the claim the subpoena is over-broad because it seeks financial records dating back to 2011. This "new" allegation is based upon the factually erroneous assumption that Vance's investigation is confined to the 2016 "hush money" payments that were the source of the allegations leveled by Michael Cohen, the President's former lawyer. (Cohen was convicted for his role in the "hush money" scheme.)

In actuality, Vance points out, the subpoena goes back to 2011 because the grand jury, on the basis of publicly revealed evidence, is investigating "potentially improper financial transactions by a variety of individuals and entities over a period of years."

In the motion, Vance based assertion on Cohen's Congressional testimony and cited Washington Post and Wall Street Journal articles. Turns out, the Manhattan DA has additional information in his possession, according to a The New York Times article that was published one day after Vance filed the motion to dismiss. Last year, Deutsche Bank turned over the Trump organization's financial records to Vance's office pursuant to a subpoena. Thus, it's likely Vance already has evidence in his possession to support the assertion, set forth in the motion, that the NY grand jury subpoenas of financial records held by Mazars relate to decades-long "alleged insurance and bank fraud by the Trump Organization and its officers".

Given Judge Marrero's rejections of the President's prior identical legal arguments, and the already significant delay incurred, it's likely that, following a hearing, a new order compelling compliance with the subpoena will soon issue. It's unlikely further stays will be granted. Thus, it's likely, a NY grand jury will receive the financial records by early September. If those records are incriminating, the intriguing question is to whether Vance, who is not hampered by DOJ rules against initiating an action, could promptly seek and deliver an October Surprise in the form of an unprecedented indictment of a sitting President.

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Ernest A. Canning is a retired attorney, author, and Vietnam Veteran (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968). He previously served as a Senior Advisor to Veterans For Bernie. Canning has been a member of the California state bar since 1977. In addition to a juris doctor, he has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science. Follow him on twitter: @cann4ing