N.Y.’s crusading attorney general tackles big targets: Trump, Cuomo and now the NRA

Gun Rights

When state Judge Arthur Engoron ordered former President Donald Trump and his companies to pay over $355 million for widespread fraud on Friday, it was another stunning victory for New York Attorney General Letitia James.

“Donald Trump may have authored The Art of the Deal, but he perfected the art of the steal,” James said at a news conference after the ruling was issued.

She then took a shot at Trump’s character: “The scale and the scope of Donald Trump’s fraud is staggering and so too is his ego and his belief that the rules do not apply to him.”

James, 65, is a Democrat who made history as the first Black woman to serve as New York’s attorney general.

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A Brooklyn native and a graduate of Howard University School of Law, she wasn’t widely known outside New York City, where she served on the City Council and later in the largely ceremonial role of public advocate.

But after just five years as New York state’s attorney general, James has built a reputation as a giant-slayer, targeting — and in some cases, toppling — some of the most powerful figures and organizations in the United States.

  • In 2019, when Trump was still in the White House, she pursued a lawsuit against his charitable operation, accusing him of misusing donations. She prevailed, forcing Trump to shut down his Trump Foundation and pay a $2 million fine.
  • Her corruption lawsuit against the National Rifle Association, filed in 2020 and now before a jury in Manhattan, pushed the once-mighty gun rights group to the brink of insolvency. Longtime NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, once a towering figure in American politics, stepped down in January on the eve of the trial, citing health concerns. “LaPierre’s resignation validates our claims against him, but it will not insulate him or the NRA from accountability,” James said last month in a statement.
  • Her office’s 2021 probe of sexual harassment allegations produced a damning report that is widely credited with forcing the resignation of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who denied any wrongdoing. “Today closes a sad chapter for all of New York,” James said in a statement after Cuomo announced he would step aside, “but it’s an important step towards justice.”

In August 2021, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepares to board a helicopter after announcing his resignation. Sexual harassment allegations cost Cuomo his job.

Seth Wenig / AP

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In August 2021, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo prepares to board a helicopter after announcing his resignation. Sexual harassment allegations cost Cuomo his job.
  • Her latest victory, against Trump and two of his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, is clearly her largest to date, raising questions about the future of the real estate empire that helped shape Trump’s public identity. In addition to the hefty financial penalty, Trump is banned from doing business in New York state for three years; his sons, for two years. They have promised to appeal.

While her track record taking on and winning big cases has won James accolades, it has also drawn criticism.

Former President Donald Trump holds up a copy of a story featuring New York Attorney General Letitia James at a news conference this January. Trump has accused James of targeting him unfairly.

Mary Altaffer / AP

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Former President Donald Trump holds up a copy of a story featuring New York Attorney General Letitia James at a news conference this January. Trump has accused James of targeting him unfairly.

Trump and his allies have long claimed her choice of targets reflects bias on the part of an ambitious Democratic politician.

“We have a totally corrupt attorney general,” Trump said during a news conference Friday at his Mar-a-Lago property in Palm Beach, Fla., and he promised to appeal.

“She campaigned on the fact that ‘I will get Trump, I will get Trump.’ Everybody’s seen it,” Trump added.

James campaigned promising to “take on” Trump

Indeed, Trump’s accusation that James is part of a political “witch hunt” is fueled in part by her own campaign rhetoric.

When James ran for attorney general in 2018, Trump was still in the White House. She made it clear to voters that he was in her crosshairs.

In one campaign video, James promised to “take on President Donald Trump and anyone who tries to deny New Yorkers their most basic rights.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James attends former President Donald Trump's civil business fraud trial in October.

Curtis Means / AP

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New York Attorney General Letitia James attends former President Donald Trump’s civil business fraud trial in October.

“I’m running for attorney general because I will never be afraid to challenge this illegitimate president,” James said in another campaign video.

After winning office, James gave an interview to NBC News in December 2018 where she promised to “use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family as well.”

She did as promised.

During her first year in office, James successfully pursued her first civil lawsuit against Trump, filed initially by her predecessor, alleging he misused donations given to his charitable organization. Trump paid $2 million and his foundation was dissolved.

“These damages speak to the president’s abuse of power,” James said in a statement, adding that “no one is above the law … not even the president of the United States.”

Despite agreeing to portions of the settlement, Trump fired back, denying wrongdoing and complaining he was being “attacked by the political hacks in New York State.”

In September 2022, James sued Trump again, this time on the fraud charges that led to last week’s jaw-dropping penalties.

During a news conference announcing the lawsuit,James acknowledged she would face criticism that her lawsuit is partisan.

She said her investigation of Trump’s business dealings “only started after Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, testified before Congress about this conduct.”

“We have produced evidence about the scope, the scale, the depth, the breadth of the illegality, the fraud that personally enriched Donald Trump and his family,” James said.

Trump again blasted James, using a racially charged nickname and accusing her in a post on his Truth Social site of being a “fraud who campaigned on a ‘get Trump’ platform.”

The ruling won by New York Attorney General Letitia James bars Donald Trump from doing business in New York state for three years. It's not yet clear how that will affect his prize real estate assets.

Mark Lennihan / AP

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The ruling won by New York Attorney General Letitia James bars Donald Trump from doing business in New York state for three years. It’s not yet clear how that will affect his prize real estate assets.

Attacks against James amplified by right-wing media

Conservative media have amplified claims by Trump, who faces dozens of criminal charges in four separate cases, that he is being attacked unfairly by Democratic prosecutors, including James, as part of an effort to cripple him politically.

In Manhattan, Trump faces a criminal trial, brought by District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, linked to allegedly illegal hush money payments.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, also a Democrat, is pursuing criminal charges against Trump linked to allegations that he tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia.

Trump also faces federal charges linked to alleged election interference and charges that he improperly handled classified documents after leaving the White House.

“They’re going in with a predetermined agenda and making that a campaign promise,” said Fox News personality Sean Hannity in October on the TV channel. “Does that sound like justice?”

Speaking on Hannity’s program, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley echoed the concern that James, in particular, acted improperly.

“When James was running for office, I wrote that I thought there were serious ethical problems with a prosecutor really trying to secure office on the pledge to nail one person,” Turley said. “This a trophy pledge that ‘I’m going to bag Donald Trump.'”

In this image taken from video, Donald Trump sits for a deposition on April 13, 2023, where the former president came face-to-face with New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Office of the New York State Attorney General / AP

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AP

In this image taken from video, Donald Trump sits for a deposition on April 13, 2023, where the former president came face-to-face with New York Attorney General Letitia James.

This month, a close Trump ally, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., filed an ethics complaint against James.

“Ms. James has displayed a personal vendetta against President Trump that renders her unable to impartially handle cases,” Stefanik said.

Members of Andrew Cuomo’s inner circle have also accused James of bias, saying she used her office’s sexual harassment probe to force him out of office.

“It’s all about what serves [Letitia] James,” said Rich Azzopardi, a longtime Democratic operative in New York and an adviser to Cuomo. “It has nothing to do with the responsibilities of the office. I’ve never seen a more political attorney general.”

James did briefly run for governor after Cuomo’s resignation, but her campaign faltered. She withdrew from the governor’s race and instead won a second term as state attorney general in November 2022.

“This case has never been about politics”

James didn’t accept NPR’s repeated requests for an interview for this story.

In public appearances, however, she has addressed accusations that her lawsuits against Trump are political.

“This case has never been about politics or personal vendettas or about name-calling,” James said last year. “This case is about the facts and the law.”

Christina Greer, a political scientist at the City College of New York who has studied James’ career, said it’s common for prosecutors to take firm public positions, sometimes controversial ones, on policy and the law.

“It’s an elected position. Isn’t there always going to be politics for an elected position? I mean, she has to have a point of view.”

Greer noted that James’ lawsuits are all tested in court, before judges or juries. Powerful defendants, typically represented by top-tier legal teams, have the opportunity to prove that cases are flawed or biased.

Instead, James continues to prevail.

“She’s able to take on these very high-powered men, Democrats and Republicans alike, because she also had a very dedicated team of lawyers [who build strong cases],” Greer said.

Next up: a verdict for the NRA

Wayne LaPierre arrives at court in Lower Manhattan in January. LaPierre resigned as CEO of the National Rifle Association on the eve of the corruption trial against the organization. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Yuki Iwamura / AP

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AP

Wayne LaPierre arrives at court in Lower Manhattan in January. LaPierre resigned as CEO of the National Rifle Association on the eve of the corruption trial against the organization. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The next test for James’ crusading legal approach is expected any day, when a Manhattan jury returns a verdict in the National Rifle Association corruption trial.

“The NRA’s influence has been so powerful that the organization went unchecked for decades,” James said during a news conference announcing the lawsuit.

The NRA claimed repeatedly in legal filings that James’ lawsuit was politically motivated, part of a “witch hunt” designed to weaken and silence a conservative advocacy group.

In 2022, however, state Judge Joel Cohen rejected the NRA’s argument of political bias and allowed the case to move forward.

“There are no factual allegations [by the NRA] suggesting that the stated concerns driving the investigation – reports of fraud, waste, and looting within the NRA – were imaginary or not believed by the Attorney General,” Cohen wrote.

James is now asking for sweeping financial penalties against the NRA and its top leaders, as well as new restrictions that could permanently hobble the gun rights group’s operations.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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