US top court hears cases over Trump’s tax returns

The US Supreme Court is hearing arguments on whether President Donald Trump should be allowed to keep his financial records secret, in a major showdown over presidential powers.

Mr Trump declines to share documents that could shed light on his fortune and the work of his family company.

Two congressional committees and New York prosecutors demand the release of his tax returns and other information.

Mr Trump’s private lawyers argue he enjoys total immunity while in office.

Experts say the ruling will have far-reaching implications for the ability of Congress to scrutinise the activities of sitting presidents and of prosecutors to investigate them.

A decision is expected before the US presidential election in November. A ruling against Mr Trump could mean the release of his personal financial information in the campaign season.

The judges will hear the cases by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic.

What are the cases about?

In the three cases being heard, Mr Trump’s lawyers tried to bloc the subpoenas – orders to hand over evidence. Lower courts in Washington and New York ruled against the president in all cases, but those decisions have been put on hold pending a final court ruling.

Two committees at the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives demanded financial records from two banks that did deals with Mr Trump – Deutsche Bank and Capital One, as well as from Mazars, the president’s accountants.

Deutsche Bank was one of the few banks willing to lend to Mr Trump after a series of corporate bankruptcies in the 1990s, and the documents sought to include records related to the president, the Trump Organization and his family.

Mr Trump’s lawyers argued that Congress had no authority to issue the subpoenas.

Mazars is also the recipient of a subpoena from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr, a Democrat.

The investigation concerns alleged hush money payments made by Mr Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen to two women – adult film star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal – who both say they had affairs with Mr Trump. The president denies the affairs took place.

In this case, Mr Trump’s lawyers said his records could not be handed over because his position as president gave him immunity from any criminal proceeding while in office.

What is the background?

Unlike other recent presidents, Mr Trump has refused to release his tax returns, and the cases resemble earlier disputes over the powers of a sitting president.

In 1974, the court unanimously decided that President Richard Nixon must comply with a court’s subpoena for tape recordings in the Watergate scandal. And in another unanimous decision, in 1997, it allowed a sexual harassment lawsuit to go forward against President Bill Clinton.

Justices appointed by Mr Nixon and Mr Clinton voted against them in the cases.

The Supreme Court has a 5-4 conservative majority, and includes two Trump appointees – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

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