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What's At Stake In The Trump Tax Case At The Supreme Court

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Can President Trump continue to shield his tax returns and other financial records from scrutiny? That was the question at the heart of three cases heard by the Supreme Court today over teleconference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN ROBERTS: The first case we will argue today is case 19-715, Donald Trump v. Mazars USA. Mr. Strawbridge?

KELLY: Three congressional committees and the Manhattan district attorney have demanded that Trump's accounting firm and two banks hand over his tax and business records. President Trump has fought the subpoenas. Lower courts have ruled against him. His attorneys appealed, which is how we have ended up with today's arguments before the Supreme Court. Well, here to lay out what is at stake is Andrea Bernstein. She is co-host of the "Trump, Inc." podcast from WNYC and ProPublica.

Hey there.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Hey, Mary Louise. Great talking to you.

KELLY: And you. OK, before we get to today's arguments, I do want to go back to just after Trump was elected president and his decision not to divest from his business holdings because that is what opened the door to where we are today.

BERNSTEIN: Right. So in the case of President Trump, he did not cut the umbilical cord with his family business. So we still don't quite understand how he interacts with that business, how he profits, if he's profiting. And that has led to a whole series of questions and investigations because, for the first time in modern history, President Trump has refused to release his tax returns.

So there are a number of questions that have been raised about possible conflicts, about possible avenues of influence. There's been a lot of journalism. And there's been a number of congressional investigations and one by the Manhattan DA, all of which Trump has rebuffed. His lawyers, his personal lawyers, filed three suits to prevent the records from being released, and those are the arguments that we heard in the Supreme Court today.

KELLY: OK. So to those arguments that we heard today, this was - I mentioned - the three cases. One examines how the Trump Organization conducted business going back to well before Donald Trump's run for president. Two are tied to the 2016 election. Just give us a little bit more detail.

BERNSTEIN: Right. So it's three House committees, three sets of subpoenas and three cases. But they're not all - they don't all line up. One of the cases involves the House Financial Services Committee looking into a broad-based money laundering investigation, and they're asking to speak to - they're asking to get records from Trump's bankers, Deutsche Bank, regarding that.

The other involves the House Intelligence Committee, which is looking into possible interference in the 2016 election. And the third one stems from Michael Cohen, Trump's personal attorney's testimony before Congress last year in which he said that Trump was inflating certain records and deflating certain records. And that's why congress asked to see his tax returns.

KELLY: What is it, Andrea, that Democrats in Congress and the Manhattan DA - what is it they think they can prove if they get their hands on these documents?

BERNSTEIN: Right. So the congressional subpoenas are a little bit different from the Manhattan DA. What the congressional subpoenas are looking at are how does the president's business interact with his official duties. Are there areas of conflict of interests? Are there areas of misconduct? Are there areas in where he has acted outside the bounds of presidential behavior? And the idea is, should there be legislation that would correct these things?

The Manhattan DA's a little different. After the Department of Justice decided not to pursue the things that Michael Cohen said about how Trump had directed him to violate campaign finance laws, the Manhattan DA took over the case and began to investigate his tax returns and to ask for his tax records. And that's what they're trying to look into, and that's what Trump's lawyers have successfully blocked so far.

KELLY: So in the 30 seconds or so we have left, how did it go? Any indication of where the court may land?

BERNSTEIN: They seemed more inclined for the law enforcement investigation to go forward, but that would remain a secret. Lots of skepticism about how you limit congressional oversight. That's a question that still remains.

KELLY: That is Andrea Bernstein. She's author of "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps, And The Marriage Of Money And Power."

Andrea, thank you.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.