President not above the law

The U.S. Supreme Court last week by a vote of 7-2 agreed with most Americans that President Trump is not above the law.

The justices also ruled that he is not below the law.

The Court’s majority treated Trump as it would any other U.S. citizen who, like Trump, had been hauled into federal district court, and then appellate court, after he refused to comply with grand jury subpoenas for his tax and borrowing records. Three U.S. House committees sought similar records through their own subpoenas.

There are two cases. Prosecutors and a grand jury in the one case, and U.S. House committees in the other, are suspicious that Trump undervalued his wealth and/or income for tax purposes, and overstated them to lenders in order to secure loans.

Such financial misrepresentations are illegal. 

But most of the alleged falsehoods occurred when Trump was a private citizen, before his inauguration as president. 

That fact weighed heavily in the Court’s decisions to deny Trump’s claims of presidential immunity and send the cases back to lower courts.

Trump’s primary argument through the entire chain of court appearances — district, appellate and Supreme — was that as president he is absolutely immune to law enforcement, regarding both grand juries and Congress.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote both majority opinions, stated the situation succinctly regarding the subpoenas: “In our system, the public has a right to every man’s evidence.” 

He went on, “Since the founding of the Republic, every man has included the president of the United States.”

The Supreme Court’s decisions are a triumph for the rule of law. 

The justices didn’t buy Trump’s argument that as president he is immune to laws that govern every other American. Now he and his lawyers will have to come up with other arguments to persuade the courts that he doesn’t need to comply with the subpoenas.

I doubt they will be successful. If there had been other rationales for that position, they would have been presented the first time around.

To make it even more difficult for the president, the subpoenas do not ask him personally to turn over the documents. The grand jury and the congressional committees sought them from two of Trump’s lenders, Deutsche Bank and Capital One, and from the Mazars USA accounting firm. Trump and his attorneys would not have had to devote any time to searching, locating and producing them. 

But the wheels of justice turn slowly, as the saying goes. 

With fewer than four months to go before the Nov. 3 general election, it’s not likely the rerun through the judicial process will be completed by then. 

And even if the cases are expedited, proceedings before a grand jury must be held in secret. Documents considered as part of that process almost always must remain confidential. The voting public is not likely to see the tax and lending documents, at least not before November.

And that’s OK. 

Opponents of Trump are disappointed that voters won’t, at long last, view the hidden details of his finances before the election. They hoped for those as more arrows in their campaign quiver.

But they got what they had called for. The Supreme Court treated Trump like any other citizen — no more and no less. He’s not above the law, but he is entitled to the same legal rights as anyone else, including the right to produce a legitimate argument on why he shouldn’t have to answer the subpoenas, after his unique claim of immunity failed.

In the case involving Congress, the Court found that the House committees have to show more specifically what their legislative or prosecutorial reasons were for issuing the subpoenas. 

That’s sensible as well. The Court didn’t rule the congressional subpoenas out of bounds. Its ruling simply stated that the House committees need to establish common-sense reasons within their legitimate powers, other than just curiosity, to seek what’s in the tax and lending documents.

That ruling helps to delineate the boundary between executive and legislative powers under the Constitution.

The Supreme Court’s decisions lie squarely within the American tradition of the rule of law. Subpoenas can’t be cast aside, even by the president of the United States.

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