(CNN)In the long saga of Donald Trump’s tax returns, Monday was averyimportant day.
A three-judge federal appeals courtruledthat Trump cannot claim presidential immunity to avoid eight years of his tax returns being subpoenaed by a grand jury. Trump lawyer Jay Sekulow immediately released a statement saying that Trump will appeal the ruling. All of which means this case is probably going to wind up in front of the Supreme Court.
Which is what we expected when this all began. People weren’t going to stop trying to get the President’s tax returns. And the President made a decision a long time ago that he wasn’t handing them over without a major fight.
What is most interesting, however, is what the appeals panel ruled – and whether that complicates the Supreme Court’s presumed decision whether to hear the case.
“The only question before us is whether a state may lawfully demand production by a third party of the President’s personal financial records for use in a grand jury investigation while the President is in office,” wrote the judges, adding: “We hold that any presidential immunity from state criminal process does not bar the enforcement of a subpoena.”
In legal-ese, what the judges are saying is that while it is Justice Department policy that a sitting President cannot be indicted, that does not hold for a subpoena directed at the accounting firm – in this case, Mazars USA – to produce eight years of Trump’s tax records.
That’s the same point thatUS District Judge Victor Marrero made earlier this yearwhen he dismissed Trump’s claim of presidential immunity as an attempt to create “absolute immunity from criminal process of any kind.”
Add those two rulings up and it becomes quite clear that Trump’s attempts to keep his tax returns from even semi-public view are more imperiled today than at any time since he became a candidate for president. Which is a big deal!
Now, take a breath. It remains to be seen how (and whether) the Supreme Court acts on Trump’s promised appeal. And, even if Trump is forced to hand eight years of his tax returns to the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, that’s far from a guarantee that they will leak to the public. So being closer than ever before to seeing exactly what is in Trump’s tax returns isn’t the same thing as seeing what’s in Trump’s tax returns. We aren’t there yet.
But while we wait to see what the Supreme Court will do with such a white-hot political issue, it’s worth remembering a few things about Trump and his tax returns.
* Trump is the first major party nominee since Watergate to refuse to hand over any of his tax records
* Trump is the first president since Watergate to refuse to hand over any past tax returns.
* Trump and his top aides have provided any number of ever-changing excuses to explain why he will not turn over his returns. Among those reasons: a) they are allegedly under audit b) the 2016 election showed people don’t care about his taxes c) his taxes are too complex for the average person to understand.
None of those reasons are, strictly speaking, true. A sitting president has turned over his tax returns while under audit; his name was Richard Nixon. There is zero specific (or even non-specific) evidence that the 2016 vote was in any way, shape or form a referendum on Trump’s refusal to turn over his taxes. And as for the “too complex” argument, well, just try us!
The simple fact is that Trump decided in the early days of his campaign that whatever was in the returns was more damaging than the negative press he would take for not releasing them. (Prior to being a candidate, Trump said publicly he would release his returns if he ever ran for president.) While no one knows what Trump is so worried about in the returns, it’s long been clear that the only way his returns will ever see the light of day is if he is given no other choice under the law.
With the ruling Monday, we’re now one step closer to that exact scenario coming to pass .