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The U.S. Supreme Court appears to be divided over two separate cases involving whether President Donald Trump must turn over his tax returns and financial records after subpoenas from congressional Democrats and a New York City district attorney.
The nine justices heard nearly three-and-a-half hours of arguments by telephone due to lockdown precautions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Congress has subpoenaed the president's bank and tax records as part of its investigations into his business dealings. The probe includes questions about whether Trump overstated his wealth, as well as allegations of money laundering.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. also wants the information as part of a New York grand jury investigation into whether a former Trump attorney paid hush money to two women to stop them from talking about affairs they allegedly had with Trump.
Trump is the only U.S. president in recent history not to disclose his tax returns, insisting he cannot do so while he is under audit.
Appeals courts in Washington and New York have ordered the White House to turn over the information but have put the rulings on hold while the Supreme Court hears the cases.
The court's conservative majority questioned House lawyer Douglas Letter on Tuesday on whether lawmakers are trying to harass the president by subpoenaing his financial records.
"In your view, there's no protection for the purpose of preventing harassment of a president," Justice Samuel Alito told Letter. Alito expressed concern that a ruling against the president would allow Congress to harass future presidents.
Justice Neil Gorsuch said he is worried about lawmakers abusing the subpoena process.
"Normally, we use law enforcement tools like subpoenas to investigate known crimes and not to pursue individuals to find crimes," Gorsuch said.
But Justice Elena Kagan reminded Trump's attorneys that the president is not above the law and when personal records are concerned as part of congressional oversight, "the president is just a man."
Justice Stephen Breyer said the Trump administration's approach would have kept Congress from investigating the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.
But in the case involving the New York subpoenas, neither the liberal nor conservative side appeared to show much sympathy for the argument by the president's legal team that a sitting president cannot be investigated while he is office.
The conservative Gorsuch asked why Trump deserves immunity when former President Bill Clinton - who was impeached over a sexual harassment case - did not.
A court ruling against Trump could affect his chances of reelection in November. But a favorable ruling still would not remove the many questions surrounding his business empire.