Timothy L. O'Brien: President Trump decides laws are for the little people

Timothy L. O'Brien, Bloomberg News on

Published in Op Eds

There are a number of possible explanations for why the president of the United States is so reluctant to let the public see his tax returns and accounting records.

Because he's a quiet, humble man, maybe he doesn't want anyone to know just how massively successful and wealthy he really is. Or perhaps he's been giving away so much money to the needy that the scope of his philanthropy might draw uncomfortable and unwanted attention.

I suspect the real reason lies elsewhere. President Donald Trump is comfortably wealthy, but certainly nowhere close to having the $10 billion he has claimed since the earliest days of his presidential bid. While not containing enough information about the full scope of Trump's debts and assets to be definitive about his wealth, the tax returns would still show how robust his businesses are and, possibly, the provenance of some of his funding. They'd also be a report card of sorts on any financial sleight of hand or potential tax fraud lurking among the skeletons in Trump's closet.

All of those latter items are likely to be things that Trump wants kept under wraps. So, on Thursday, the president's lawyers sued his accounting firm, Mazars USA, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance in federal court in Manhattan, seeking to block Vance's request for eight years of Trump tax returns from Mazars. Vance is looking into the possibility that Trump's company took improper tax deductions and falsified business records to mask payments it made through Trump's former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, to silence two of the president's alleged lovers.

Trump's lawyers present an interesting argument in the court filing.

"Though no court has had to squarely consider the question, the U.S. Department of Justice and '(a)lmost all legal commenters agree' that the President cannot be 'subject to the criminal process' while in office,'" the suit observes. "This principle stems from Article II, the Supremacy Clause, and the overall structure of the Constitution."

That's quite an assertion. And Trump's lawyers, in arguing that a sitting president exists above the law, don't cite legal precedent -- the thing lawyers usually do to build a strong and persuasive argument rooted in the law itself. Instead, Trump's team offers a sweeping interpretation of executive power and immunity and cites a Justice Department memo and a gaggle of "legal commenters" to support their Hail Mary pass.

Anticipating some of the criticism coming their way, Trump's lawyers say that "the notion that this prohibition 'places the President 'above the law is "wholly unjustified." They go on: "It is simply error to characterize an official as 'above the law' because a particular remedy is not available against him."

Trump's lawyers also note that hardball politics are at work and that the Founding Fathers braced for that a long time ago.

"The framers of our Constitution understood that state and local prosecutors would be tempted to criminally investigate the president to advance their own careers and to advance their political agendas," the suit says. "And they likewise understood that having to defend against these actions would distract the president from his constitutional duties."

Here's the rub, though, when it comes to these distracting investigations that prove so irksome to the White House: The framers couldn't have anticipated a president as financially conflicted as Trump. The framers also couldn't have foreseen that he would be targeted by state and federal probes with such frequency -- which offers at least one measure of how extensive and pervasive corruption has been in the Trump era.

The Trumpistas aren't limiting themselves to the courtroom to assert executive power. They're doing it within the federal government too.


In an episode that first got exposure in the Washington Post on Wednesday and Thursday, the inspector general for the U.S intelligence community is examining claims by a White House whistleblower who was charged with monitoring a phone call between Trump and a foreign leader. The call in question involves Ukraine and a "promise" that Trump made that alarmed the whistleblower and caused him to make others aware.

Less than a month before the complaint was filed, Trump spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The inspector general is also examining whether Rudolph Giuliani, Trump's on-again, off-again adviser, worked with Trump to try to convince Ukraine to help the president in the 2020 U.S. election. As it happens, Giuliani (who confirmed this in a CNN interview) has been chatting up a Ukrainian official in an effort to dig up dirt on Joe Biden.

Democrats in Congress have been trying to get relevant paperwork from the intelligence community to determine what happened around all of this. But the White House and the Justice Department have cited the latitude the president enjoys on foreign policy and national security matters and haven't been forthcoming.

Adam Schiff, the Democrat who oversees the House Intelligence Committee, has told the intelligence community he will take legal action if the whistleblower's complaint isn't shared with him, signaling yet another possible clash between the executive and legislative branches.

For his part, the president, feeling the authority vested in him by the office he holds, took to Twitter on Thursday to let people know he doesn't understand all the fuss.

"Another Fake News story out there -- It never ends! Virtually anytime I speak on the phone to a foreign leader, I understand that there may be many people listening from various U.S. agencies, not to mention those from the other country itself. No problem!," he tweeted. "Knowing all of this, is anybody dumb enough to believe that I would say something inappropriate with a foreign leader while on such a potentially 'heavily populated' call. I would only do what is right anyway, and only do good for the USA!" he added.

About The Writer

Timothy L. O'Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include "TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald."

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