By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Wednesday said Manhattan's district attorney can enforce a subpoena seeking Donald Trump's tax returns and other financial records for a criminal probe into the U.S. president and his businesses.
In a 3-0 decision, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan rejected the Republican president's claims that the subpoena was overly broad and amounted to political harassment by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a Democrat.
"The President has a 'difficult' burden and an 'unenviable' task: to make plausible allegations that could persuade the court that the subpoena that has been served on him could not possibly serve any investigative purpose that the grand jury could legitimately be pursuing," it wrote. "His complaint fails to do so."
Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Trump, said the president will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, and seek a stay against enforcing the subpoena. Vance has agreed not to enforce it for 12 days so long as Trump appeals quickly.
The Supreme Court has already ruled once in the bitter, yearlong dispute, having in July rejected Trump's argument he was immune from criminal probes while in the White House.
But the court said Trump could raise other objections to the grand jury subpoena to his longtime accounting firm, Mazars USA, for his corporate and personal tax returns from 2011 to 2018.
Vance issued the subpoena in August 2019. Trump is seeking reelection on Nov. 3.
A spokesman for Vance did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The unsigned decision upheld an Aug. 20 ruling by U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in Manhattan.
It followed a Sept. 28 report in The New York Times that Trump had paid $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017, and no income taxes in 10 of the prior 15 years, reflecting "chronic" losses he used to avoid paying taxes.
Trump has rejected findings from the Times report, tweeting that he had paid many millions of dollars in taxes but was entitled to depreciation and tax credits.
He has long resisted making his tax returns public, unlike his six immediate predecessors occupying the White House.
Vance's probe began more than two years ago, and had focused on hush money payments that the president's former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen paid before the 2016 election to two women who said they had sexual encounters with Trump.
The district attorney has suggested in recent court filings that his probe is now broader and could focus on bank, tax and insurance fraud, as well as falsification of business records.
Trump argued that the probe was still focused on the Cohen payments, making the subpoena an improper "fishing expedition" targeting his business interests around the world, and said Vance improperly copied a similar congressional subpoena.
But the appeals court called it "implausible" speculation for Trump to suggest the probe was limited to the Cohen payments.
The court said grand juries "necessarily paint with a broad brush," especially in complex financial investigations, and do not know at the outset what their needs are.
It also found "no logic" to suggest Vance had no legitimate law enforcement reason to seek documents from Trump, just because a congressional committee wanted the same documents for its own investigation.
The court also found no specific allegations that partisanship motivated Vance.
All three judges on the appeals court panel were appointed by Democratic presidents. Five of the eight current Supreme Court justices were appointed by Republican presidents.
Even if Vance gets Trump's tax returns, grand jury secrecy rules make it unlikely he will reveal their contents unless criminal charges were brought. If that happened, it would likely occur after the Nov. 3 election.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld in New York, and Alexandra Alper and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Steve Orlofsky and Andrea Ricci)