A US federal judge has rejected President Donald Trump’s claim to be immune from all criminal investigations and dismissed his lawsuit challenging a state grand jury subpoena for tax returns sought by Manhattan’s district attorney.
US District Judge Victor Marrero said in his ruling that he could not grant such a “categorical and limitless assertion of presidential immunity”.
Mr Trump’s lawyers immediately appealed to the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals, also based in Manhattan, meaning the eight years of tax returns are unlikely to be turned over immediately.
Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R Vance Jr, a Democrat, asked Mr Trump’s accounting firm to turn over his business and personal tax returns as part of an investigation of the Trump Organisation’s alleged involvement in buying the silence of two women who claimed to have had affairs with the president.
Mr Trump’s lawyers have said the investigation is politically motivated and the request for his tax records should be stopped because he is immune from any criminal probe as long as he is president.
In striking down Mr Trump’s attempt to block the subpoena, Judge Marrero called Mr Trump’s claim of a 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,” Judge 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 could not accept that legal view, “especially in the light of the fundamental concerns over excessive arrogation of power that animated the constitution’s delicate structure and its calibrated balance of authority among the three branches of the national government, as well as between the federal and state authorities”.
Justice Department lawyers in Washington, who had urged Judge Marrero to delay deciding the issue, declined to comment.
Mr Vance began his probe after federal prosecutors in Manhattan completed their investigation into payments that Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, arranged to be paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal to keep them silent during the presidential race.
The Trump Organisation later reimbursed Cohen.
Cohen is serving a three-year prison sentence for crimes that included campaign finance violations.
Mr 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 Mr Vance gains access to Mr Trump’s returns through a grand jury investigation, that does not mean that their contents would be disclosed publicly.
It is unclear what Mr Trump’s returns might have to do with the criminal investigation.