Ruling on Trump tax records could be costliest defeat of his losing streak

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David Smith in Washington
·4 min read
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<span>Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP</span>
Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

Donald Trump used to promise his supporters that they would be winning so much, they would get sick and tired of winning. But the former US president is now on a seemingly endless losing streak.

He lost the presidential election, lost more than 60 legal challenges to the result, lost his bid to overturn the electoral college, lost control of the Senate and lost an impeachment trial 43-57, though he was spared conviction on a technicality. On Monday, Trump lost yet again – with potentially far-reaching consequences.

Related: Supreme court rejects Trump bid to block tax records from prosecutor

The supreme court rejected an attempt by his lawyers to block Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan district attorney (DA) in New York, from enforcing a subpoena to obtain eight years of his personal and corporate tax records.

The ruling did not mean the public will get to see Trump’s tax returns, which have gained near mythical status due to him being the first recent president to conceal them, any time soon.

But it did remove an important obstacle from Vance’s dogged investigation. The DA has said little about why he wants Trump’s records but, in a court filing last year, prosecutors said they were justified in seeking them because of public reports of “possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization” – Trump’s family business empire – thought to include bank, tax and insurance fraud.

Now that investigation is gathering momentum. Vance, who earlier this month hired a lawyer with extensive experience in white-collar and organised crime cases, will be able to find out whether the public reports were accurate by studying actual financial records, spreadsheets and email correspondence between the Trump Organization and accounting firm Mazars USA.

If wrongdoing is established, it raises the spectre of Trump some day in the future standing in the dock in a New York courtroom and even facing a potential prison term. No wonder he fought so hard to cling to power and the immunity from prosecution that it conferred.

The threat, however real or remote, casts a shadow over Trump’s chances of making a political comeback. On Sunday he is due to make his first speech since leaving office at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, reasserting his command of the Republican party and teasing a new run for president in 2024.

Lindsey Graham, possibly his most loyal supporter in the US Senate, told the Washington Post: “If he ran, it would be his nomination for the having. I don’t know what he wants to do. Because he was successful for conservatism and people appreciate his fighting spirit, he’s going to dominate the party for years to come. The way I look at it, there is no way we can achieve our goals without Trump.”

Bill Christeson holds up a sign that reads &#x002018;Follow the Money&#x002019; outside the supreme court as it issued an initial ruling on the release of Donald Trump&#x002019;s tax returns last July.
Bill Christeson holds up a sign that reads ‘Follow the Money’ outside the supreme court as it issued an initial ruling on the release of Donald Trump’s tax returns last July. Photograph: Andrew Harnik/AP

The former president’s response to the supreme court ruling on Monday – describing Vance’s investigation as part of “the greatest political witch-hunt in the history of our country” – fitted his political playbook. If he did run for the White House again in 2024, he would surely cite the investigation as proof of a “deep state” conspiracy in order to fuel his grievance movement.

The court’s decision also coincided with the opening of a Senate judiciary committee confirmation hearing for Merrick Garland, nominated by Joe Biden as attorney general. It suits both Biden and Garland very nicely for the Manhattan DA to do the heavy lifting when it comes to pursuing Trump, lest they be accused of politicising law enforcement.

It also allows Biden to swerve past the no-win situation that he would face if Trump were convicted of a federal offence, with some urging him to issue a pardon in the name of unity and healing and others warning that such weakness would set a terrible example.

Trump was twice impeached, including for inciting violence against the US government and leaving his own vice-president, Mike Pence, to the tender mercies of the mob.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel, presented 10 examples of Trump’s behaviour during his Russia investigation that could be legally construed as obstruction of justice. Yet it is his long quest to hide his taxes that could prove his achilles heel and derail his future political ambitions.

The New York Times reported last year that Trump had paid only $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, and no income taxes in 10 of the previous 15 years.

Matthew Dowd, a political strategist, told the MSNBC network: “I find it fascinating that taxes may finally be the way that DT is held accountable in all the things he’s done throughout his life. I find it fascinating because Al Capone, for all the bad things he did, was finally held accountable and ended up on the Rock [Alcatraz Island] out in California because of tax evasion.”