NEW YORK -- Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance could soon get his hands on President Donald Trump's tax returns, but that doesn't mean the public will see them.
The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday rejected the president's claim of absolute immunity shielding his corporate and personal tax records from a subpoena Vance issued to Trump's accounting firm, Mazars LLP, as part of an ongoing grand jury investigation. The case will now go back to a lower federal court, where Trump is promising to continue fighting.
Even if the lower court swiftly grants Vance access, the president's taxes will likely remain secret as long as the district attorney is still investigating.
"Unless somebody is charged with a crime, nobody's going to see these," said Adam Lurie, a former federal prosecutor in New Jersey.
The president downplayed the ruling on Twitter, saying arguments would continue in the lower court, but also expressed displeasure at the 7-2 decision against him.
Vance hailed the decision, calling it "a tremendous victory for our nation's system of justice and its founding principle that no one – not even a president – is above the law." He said the investigation "will resume, guided as always by the grand jury's solemn obligation to follow the law and the facts, wherever they may lead."
Even if New York prosecutors conclude that the returns contain evidence of a crime, it's unlikely any of the materials would be ready for public disclosure before the election, less than four months from now.
John Moscow, a former prosecutor who oversaw major white-collar investigations at the Manhattan district attorney's office, pointed out that the grand jury process has been delayed for months due to the coronavirus pandemic, likely creating a backlog of violent crime cases. "The chances of an indictment before January would, to me, appear to be slim," he said.
And what charges might emerge from Vance's Trump investigation remains uncertain.
"We don't exactly know what he intends to do with these financial documents," said Harry Sandick, a former federal prosecutor in New York. "It seems likely that this is a false business records case. It is possibly a tax evasion case."
Vance has said he's investigating hush-money payments made just before the 2016 election to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who claims she once had a sexual relationship with Trump. Michael Cohen, the president's former personal lawyer, has already been convicted of violating federal campaign finance laws for making the $130,000 payment to Daniels.
But Vance can only bring charges under state law. Several lawyers said Vance is likely looking at whether the Trump Organization falsified records relating to its reimbursement and bonus payments to Cohen, who received $420,000.
In New York, falsifying business records can only be considered a felony if it's done to conceal illegal activity, like tax fraud. That may be what Vance is driving at, said Moscow.
"If in fact the Trump Organization took business deductions for that kind of stuff, then the DA in Manhattan has a criminal case," Moscow said. "If the company takes a $420,000 deduction for that payment, they're paying less to the city and to the state, which are subsidizing people to keep them quiet about their dealings with Donald."
But it's not clear how the president's personal tax returns fit into an investigation of his company's deductions.
"They might be trying to trace where the money came from," Lurie said, "and to the extent that Trump's tax returns identify different bank accounts and sources of potential cash, they may be trying to trace the money back to the president in some way."
Prosecutors may be expecting the president's tax returns to reveal new information that could form the basis of a fresh criminal probe. "It would shock me if that's not on their mind," Lurie said.
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