US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

New York — President Donald Trump won a last-minute reprieve from a court order that would have forced his accountants to immediately hand over his tax filings and other financial records.

But he still must persuade an appeals court to reject the ruling against him, which called Trump’s claims of immunity “repugnant” to the US constitution.

A federal judge in New York ruled early on Monday that Trump can’t stop his accountants, Mazars USA LLP, from turning over eight years of taxes and other financial documents to Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance Jr, whose office is investigating whether the Trump Organization falsified business records related to hush-money payments.

Trump immediately appealed and in less than two hours won a delay to give the federal appeals court in Manhattan time for expedited review. The delay postponed what would have been a 1pm Monday deadline for Mazars to begin turning over the records to prosecutors.

The ruling means that Trump is closer to losing control of his tax filings and other financial records after years of defying a modern presidential norm of disclosing them to the public.

US district judge Victor Marrero rejected Trump’s request for an injunction to block a grand jury subpoena for Trump’s personal and business records, ruling that the case should have been filed in state court, rather than federal court. But he also ruled against the president’s constitutional claims, calling his argument for immunity from investigation “virtually limitless”.

Trump asserted broad claims of presidential immunity from criminal investigation, extending to his company and business associates as well. But the judge found the assertion overly broad and dismissed Trump’s argument, saying it “would constitute an overreach of executive power”.

Marrero’s ruling marked another crack in the legal wall Trump has constructed around his personal financial records. Two judges have already ruled against Trump in other federal cases involving his financial records, with the president appealing those decisions. The stakes of the legal fight have only increased with the Democrats’ announcement of a formal impeachment inquiry.

Trump assailed the ruling in a tweet shortly before the appeals court issued its temporary order.

Lawyers from Vance’s office told Marrero that New York law and legal ethics rules required them to keep the material secret. But information from the returns, or the documents themselves, could be used to develop cases or presented as evidence in a trial.

“This court cannot endorse such a categorical and limitless assertion of presidential immunity,” Marrero wrote in his ruling. “The expansive notion of constitutional immunity invoked here to shield the president from judicial process would constitute an overreach of executive power.”

Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor and partner at Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler in New York, said the ruling was clear.

“The court was unwilling to accord the type of absolute immunity Trump’s lawyers asked for,” Sandick said. “The founders meant to give us a president, not a king.”

Vance is seeking evidence about hush payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Federal prosecutors last year charged Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, with co-ordinating payments to Daniels and McDougal at the direction of Trump, whom federal prosecutors famously referred to as “Individual 1” in court papers.

Cohen pleaded guilty last year to campaign-finance violations, tax evasion, bank fraud and lying to Congress and is serving a three-year prison term. In a remarkable turnabout, the same justice department that prosecuted Cohen and labelled him as “Individual 1” took preliminary steps this month to back Trump’s argument that the president can’t be investigated by state authorities.

In another case involving Trump’s records, the House Ways and Means Committee is trying to get six years of his tax records from the Internal Revenue Service. Trump also sued separately to block a New York law that would let Congress get his state tax returns.

Trump is also fighting subpoenas from other House committees that are trying to get financial information from Mazars, the president’s accounting firm, and from his bankers at Deutsche Bank and Capital One Financial. Federal judges in New York and Washington have ruled against Trump in those two cases, and he’s appealing.

Congressional Democrats want to get hold of the records to investigate matters including Trump’s possible business ties to Russia and potential violations of the Constitution’s emoluments clauses, which curbs a president’s ability to take payments from foreign and domestic governments or officials.

Vance’s investigation is focused on determining whether business records were falsified to hide the nature of the payments to Daniels and McDougal, which were made before the 2016 presidential election.

The justice department has for decades taken the position that the constitution protects presidents from being charged criminally while in office. But the question of whether he can be probed by state authorities has never been tested in court.

Trump sued Vance and Mazars in his individual capacity, not as president. Mazars took no position in the case.

A spokesperson for Vance declined to comment.

Bloomberg