NEW YORK – Former President Donald Trump sued New York Attorney General Letitia James on Monday, resorting to a familiar but seldom successful strategy as he seeks to end a yearslong civil investigation into his business practices that he alleges is purely political.
In the lawsuit, filed in federal court two weeks after James requested that Trump sit for a Jan. 7 deposition, Trump contends the probe into matters including his company's valuation of assets has violated his constitutional rights in a "thinly-veiled effort to publicly malign Trump and his associates."
The lawsuit describes James, a Democrat, as having “personal disdain" for the Republican ex-president and points to her numerous statements she's made about him, including her boast that her office sued his administration 76 times and tweets during her 2018 campaign that she had her “eyes on Trump Tower” and that Trump was “running out of time."
“Her mission is guided solely by political animus and a desire to harass, intimidate, and retaliate against a private citizen who she views as a political opponent,” the former president's lawyers wrote in the lawsuit, filed on behalf of Trump and his company, the Trump Organization.
In a statement, James said: “The Trump Organization has continually sought to delay our investigation into its business dealings and now Donald Trump and his namesake company have filed a lawsuit as an attempted collateral attack on that investigation.”
“To be clear, neither Mr. Trump nor the Trump Organization get to dictate if and where they will answer for their actions. Our investigation will continue undeterred because no one is above the law, not even someone with the name Trump.”
Trump responded that his lawsuit “is not about delay, this is about our Constitution!”
“Despite many years of investigation that nobody else could have survived even if they did things just slightly wrong, yours is just a continuation of the political Witch Hunt that has gone on against me by the Radical Left Democrats for years,” Trump said in a statement.
James had announced a run for New York governor in late October, but earlier this month, she suspended that campaign and cited ongoing investigations in her decision to instead seek reelection as state attorney general.
News of the lawsuit, filed in upstate New York, was first reported by The New York Times. The case is assigned to Judge Brenda Sannes in Syracuse, who was appointed in 2014 by former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, but preliminary proceedings will be handled by a magistrate judge in Albany, which isn't unusual for federal court.
Trump seeks a permanent injunction barring James from investigating him and preventing her from being involved in any “civil or criminal” investigations against him and his company, such as a parallel criminal probe she’s a part of that’s being led by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. Although the civil investigation is separate, James’ office has been involved in both.
Trump also wants a judge to declare that James violated his free speech and due process rights.
New York University law professor Stephen Gillers said that while it’s clear James “gave Trump ammunition to argue that she has a vendetta against him,” the lawsuit remains a longshot for Trump, who has lost multiple lawsuits aimed at foiling investigators, including a multiyear U.S. Supreme Court fight that ended in February with Vance obtaining his tax records.
“During her campaign for attorney general, James foolishly stressed her intent to target Trump and his businesses if elected,” Gillers said. "Nonetheless, I think a federal court will want stronger proof of James’ partiality than Trump can muster. It’s very hard to get a federal court to stop a state investigation when state courts are available to review any misconduct.”
James has spent more than two years investigating whether the Trump Organization misled banks or tax officials about the value of assets — inflating them to gain favorable loan terms or minimizing them to reap tax savings.
Last year, James’ investigators interviewed one of Trump’s sons, Trump Organization executive Eric Trump. Her office went to court to enforce a subpoena on the younger Trump, and a judge forced him to testify after his lawyers abruptly canceled a previously scheduled deposition.
Trump's lawsuit didn't explicitly mention James' request for his testimony, aside from a brief reference. But it's clear he won't be showing up Jan. 7, James' requested date, to answer questions voluntarily. As with Eric Trump, James' office will now likely have to issue a subpoena and go to a judge to order the former president to cooperate.
It's rare for law enforcement agencies to issue a civil subpoena for testimony from a person who is also the subject of a related criminal probe, in part because that person could simply invoke the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. It's unlikely Trump’s lawyers would allow him to be deposed unless they were sure his testimony couldn’t be used against him in a criminal case.
Vance, a Democrat who is leaving office at the end of the year, recently convened a new grand jury to hear evidence as he weighs whether to seek more indictments in the investigation, which resulted in tax fraud charges in July against the Trump Organization and its longtime CFO Allen Weisselberg. They've pleaded not guilty to charges alleging they evaded taxes on lucrative fringe benefits paid to executives.
Both investigations are at least partly related to allegations by Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, that Trump had a history of misrepresenting the value of assets.
James’ office issued subpoenas to local governments for records pertaining to Trump’s estate north of Manhattan, known as Seven Springs, and a tax benefit Trump received for placing land into a conservation trust. Vance later issued subpoenas seeking many of the same records.
James’ office has also been looking at similar issues relating to a Trump office building in New York City, a hotel in Chicago and a golf course near Los Angeles. Her office also won a series of court rulings forcing Trump’s company and a law firm it hired to turn over troves of records.
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