The problem is not just that Donald Trump has hired a team of lawyers to keep his tax returns secret; it’s also how far these lawyers will go in service of their client. The New York Times reported yesterday:
Lawyers for President Trump argued in a lawsuit filed on Thursday that he could not be criminally investigated while in office, as they sought to block a subpoena from state prosecutors in Manhattan demanding eight years of his tax returns.
Taking a broad position that the lawyers acknowledged had not been tested, the president’s legal team argued in the complaint that the Constitution effectively makes sitting presidents immune from all criminal inquiries until they leave the White House.
Presidents, they asserted, have such enormous responsibility and play a unique role in government that they cannot be subject to the burden of investigations, especially from local prosecutors who may use the criminal process for political gain.
As the investigation into the Russia scandal intensified, many Americans became familiar with the legal principle that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted while in office. The idea is not without critics and skeptics, but it’s a legal opinion Robert Mueller felt obliged to honor.
The president’s lawyers, however, are going far further down the same road. In January 2016, Trump reflected on the loyalty of his followers and boasted, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, okay, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s, like, incredible.”
As Rachel explained on the show last night, Trump’s attorneys are effectively of the opinion that if the president really did, right now, stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, there would be no way to hold him accountable so long as the president is in office.
It’s an argument rooted in the idea that the sitting president isn’t just immune from prosecution; he’s also immune from scrutiny.
As outlandish as this seems, Trump’s legal team has had some success in its efforts. The president’s accounting firm, Mazars, was expected to hand over eight years’ worth of Trump tax returns to New York prosecutors by yesterday afternoon, but in the 11th hour, a judge agreed to block the pending subpoena while the process unfolds.
On the other side of the country, Trump’s lawyers also filed a challenge to a new election law in California, which requires presidential candidates to disclose their tax returns in order to appear on the statewide ballot. It was, to be sure, a legally provocative move, and yesterday, a federal judge blocked the law’s enforcement, at least temporarily, while the legal challenge is underway.
As for why the president and his lawyers are fighting so aggressively to keep his tax returns hidden from view, it’s a question Team Trump has been reluctant to discuss.