Fifty-five days ago, President Donald Trump was supposed to file his annual personal financial disclosures, which give a broad snapshot of his money situation. The White House gave its employees 45 extra days to file the report, citing the coronavirus pandemic, making the new deadline June 29.
That was 10 days ago, and Trump still hasn’t released the disclosures. The White House told The New York Times that the president had been given another 45 days, again because of the pandemic, but that he “intends to file as soon as possible.”
Don’t hold your breath, and don’t place any big bets on seeing the documents before November 3. The Trump White House has perfected the art of foot-dragging, producing a regime in which the president is ostensibly required to do certain things as a matter of transparency and accountability—but in reality has wide leeway to avoid them. In theory, rule of law stands. In practice, where it stands is outside the door, rapping fiercely but fruitlessly to come in.
Two major Supreme Court decisions released today, both related to the president’s financial disclosures, have the same effect. In legal terms, the justices delivered a pair of devastating blows to Trump’s lawyers, rejecting attempts by the president to prevent the House of Representatives and the Manhattan district attorney from subpoenaing his tax records. Neither case was especially close: In both cases, seven of the nine justices ruled against the president (with some differences), including both of Trump’s appointees to the Court, while the other two were also skeptical of some of his key claims.
These decisions affirm the rule of law, asserting that the president is, at the end of the day, like any other American citizen, and does not have the sweeping immunity he claims. But they are blows more against the executive in general than against Trump himself, at least for now. In both cases, the Court’s rulings send cases back to lower courts, where they are likely to simmer until after Election Day. In the Manhattan case, the decision opens the door for the president’s lawyers to register new objections. Even if that moves quickly, it’s probably too late for a prosecutor to get the documents and bring a serious case before the election. In the House case, the justices remanded back to the lower courts, which also means more legal wrangling—at a time when Congress’s work is probably nearly finished until after voting.
It’s too cynical to say that what happens after the election doesn’t matter. Perhaps Trump will someday face criminal liability for financial crimes in New York, although no charges have yet been brought. (There are allegations of widespread past fraud, including some bolstered by documents provided to the Times by Mary Trump, the president’s niece, who will next week publish a tell-all memoir.) But a delayed decision surely matters less: It deprives voters of information they might use to cast their ballot in November, and if Trump wins a second term, he will never be directly accountable to voters again.
As for the financial disclosures, it’s unclear whether there’s any way to compel Trump to release them in a timely manner either. Congress or some other entity could try suing, which would send the matter right to court, where it would be promptly bottled up, probably past November. As I have written, the court system has not recognized the urgency of dealing with a president who has little regard for rule of law, choosing instead to operate on the same dilatory schedule it usually does.
One of Trump’s greatest insights into the presidency has been the power of simply saying no. (It’s not a privilege he affords others.) Since Democrats took over the House in 2019, they have attempted a range of oversight measures, many of them straightforwardly political but within their traditional power. In response, the White House has generally just refused to follow its legal obligations. One thread led to the Trump v. Mazars case, about congressional subpoenas. Another led to Trump’s impeachment. The administration did blink on both releasing aid to Ukraine and then releasing a summary of a call with the Ukrainian president, but it refused to cooperate with the process of impeachment. White House lawyers bluntly announced their intention to stonewall, and while that earned the president an additional count of impeachment for obstruction, it sort of worked: The House didn’t get to hear from all the witnesses or see all the documents it wanted to. (Of course, even if it had, it’s unlikely that would have changed the outcome of the Senate trial—although the information it might have obtained or shared might have altered public perceptions.)
The White House has simply said no in other cases too. The adviser Kellyanne Conway has repeatedly broken the Hatch Act and should be fired, according to the Office of Special Counsel, but the only person who can actually fire her is Trump, and he naturally hasn’t done so. (“Let me know when the jail sentence starts,” Conway has smirked.)
Congress has no answer for a president who operates in bad faith, except impeachment—and as the Senate’s hasty dismissal of charges demonstrated, that only works if both chambers are acting in good faith themselves. The courts have no answer either. All the public gets is some legal rulings that seem good on paper, and a government-accountability koan: If the president has to disclose certain things but no one can force him to do so in a timely fashion, does he really have to disclose them?
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