A federal judge on Monday rejected a bold argument from President Trump that sitting presidents are immune from criminal investigations, allowing the Manhattan district attorney’s office to move forward with a subpoena seeking eight years of the president’s personal and corporate tax returns.
The ruling issued by Judge Victor Marrero of Manhattan federal court does not mean that the president’s tax returns will be turned over immediately. Mr. Trump’s lawyers quickly appealed the decision, and the appeals court agreed to temporarily block the order.
The judge’s decision came a little more than a month after the Manhattan district attorney subpoenaed Mr. Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, for his personal and corporate returns dating to 2011. The demand touched off a legal showdown that raised new constitutional questions and drew in the Justice Department, which supported the president’s request to delay enforcement of the subpoena.
Mr. Vance’s office has been investigating whether any New York State laws were broken when Mr. Trump and his company reimbursed the president’s former lawyer and fixer, Michael D. Cohen, for payments he made in the run-up to the 2016 election to the pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels, who had said she had an affair with Mr. Trump.
Mr. Trump has denied having an affair with Ms. Daniels.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers sued last month to block the subpoena, arguing that the Constitution effectively makes sitting presidents immune from all criminal inquiries until they leave the White House. The lawyers acknowledged that their argument had not been tested in courts, but said the release of the president’s tax returns would cause him “irreparable harm.”
In his 75-page ruling, Judge Marrero called the president’s argument “repugnant to the nation’s governmental structure and constitutional values.” Presidents, their families and businesses are not above the law, the judge wrote.
A lawyer for the president and a spokesman for the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., each declined to comment.
Mr. Vance’s office had asked Judge Marrero to dismiss Mr. Trump’s suit, saying a grand jury had a right to “pursue its investigation free from interference and litigious delay” and rejecting his claim to blanket immunity. The judge was appointed by President Bill Clinton.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers have called the investigation by Mr. Vance, a Democrat, politically motivated. Mr. Vance has accused the president and his team of trying to run out the clock on the investigation.
Last week, lawyers with Mr. Trump’s Justice Department jumped into the fray, asking the judge to temporarily block the subpoena while the court takes time to consider the “significant constitutional issues” in the case.
The Justice Department, led by Attorney General William P. Barr, did not say whether it agreed with Mr. Trump’s position that presidents cannot be investigated. But, citing the constitutional questions, the department said it wanted to provide its views. A spokeswoman for the department declined to comment on the ruling Monday.
The Constitution does not explicitly say whether presidents can be charged with a crime while in office, and the Supreme Court has not answered the question.
Federal prosecutors are barred from charging a sitting president with a crime because the Justice Department has decided that presidents have temporary immunity while they are in office.
But in the past, that position has not precluded investigating a president. Presidents, including Mr. Trump, have been subjects of federal criminal investigations while in office. Local prosecutors, such as Mr. Vance, are also not bound by the Justice Department’s position.
As part of a temporary deal reached last month, Mr. Vance’s office agreed not to enforce the subpoena until two days after Judge Marrero issued a ruling, which would give Mr. Trump a chance to appeal if he lost. But that agreement was to expire at 1 p.m. on Monday.
The president and his lawyers have fought vigorously to shield his tax returns, which Mr. Trump said during the 2016 campaign that he would make public but has since refused to disclose.
Mr. Trump’s lawyers have sued to block attempts by congressional Democrats and New York lawmakers to gain access to his tax returns and financial records. They also successfully challenged a California law requiring presidential primary candidates to release their tax returns.
If Mr. Vance ultimately prevails in obtaining the president’s tax returns, they would not automatically become public. They would be protected by rules governing the secrecy of grand jury investigations unless the documents became evidence in a criminal case.
Mr. Trump’s accounting firm, which he sued along with the district attorney’s office to bar the company from turning over his returns, reissued the statement it released nearly three weeks ago when the lawsuit was filed, saying it “will respect the legal process and fully comply with its legal obligations.”