- In an interview with NBC, incoming Attorney General Letitia James said she plans to ramp up state-level probes of matters involving President Donald Trump.
- James said she plans to investigate, among other things, alleged tax and financial improprieties by the Trump Organization and whether Trump has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution as president.
- Some legal experts, however, told INSIDER they are worried that James’ wide-ranging inquirers could set a corrosive precedent of individual states investigating presidents for possible political reasons.
Many New York Democrats are preparing to take office early next month – and investigating President Donald Trump is high on the list of priorities for some state officials.
This week, Michael Cohen, the Trump Organization’s former chief counsel and Trump’s former lawyer, was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to federal tax fraud, bank fraud, and campaign-finance violations in August. But incoming Attorney General Letitia James wants to supplement federal prosecutors’ inquiries with increased state action.
In an interview with NBC News published Wednesday, James said she plans to ramp up state-level probes of matters involving the Trump Organization (Trump’s real-estate company) and the Trump Foundation (his charity), both of which are headquartered in New York.
James first promised she would continue to pursue Acting Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s ongoing lawsuit against the Trump Foundation. The suit, filed in June, alleges “persistent illegal conduct,” including unlawful coordination with Trump’s 2016 campaign and multiple self-dealing transactions meant to enrich Trump’s business enterprises over the course of more than a decade. Underwood is seeking $2.8 million in damages and the dissolving of the Trump Foundation.
The New York Attorney General’s Office is collaborating with Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Department of Taxation and Finance to probe whether there is enough evidence to bring criminal charges against the foundation, serving Cohen with a subpoena in August.
James said she plans to probe areas with criminal implications, including Trump’s reported tax dodging and pursuit of significant tax breaks as a real-estate developer, the June 2016 meeting between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials hosted in Trump Tower.
The incoming attorney general also said she plans to probe whether Trump has violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which is the subject of a lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Maryland and DC.
“We want to investigate anyone in his orbit who has, in fact, violated the law,” James said, adding that she also plans to push legislation to reform New York’s double-jeopardy laws so that her office can prosecute anyone pardoned for federal crimes under New York laws.
Experts say James’ broad criminal inquires of a sitting president are verging into legally untested territory, and could have significant consequences for future presidents.
While Department of Justice guidelines advise federal prosecutors against indicting a sitting president, Barack Obama’s former assistant White House counsel, Andy Wright, told INSIDER in a Wednesday interview that it remains an “unresolved question” as to whether a president can be indicted for state crimes.
“It would not be a good thing for the democracy to have open season for states to be indicting presidents,” Wright added. “That said, it would be hard as a judge to say that New York is not allowed to vindicate their interests in their own criminal law for things that Trump allegedly did before he was in office.”
Some scholars worried that James’ broad intent to “use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family as well” signaled a politically motivated abuse of power as opposed to a legitimate criminal inquiry.
“People may think about those other ramifications,” Wright said. “But I certainly think New York is well justified to investigate allegations of financial impropriety. There’s a lot of smoke there with regards to potential misuse of the charitable entity, the Trump Foundation.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are also slated to control both the State Assembly and State Senate, and they could also use their own oversight and investigatory powers to probe Trump’s finances and business deals.
Newly elected State Sen. James Skoufis, the incoming chair of the Senate Committee on Investigations and Government Operations, told INSIDER in a Thursday email that while it was “premature” for him to weigh in on whether his committee would probe matters related to the Trump Organization or Trump Foundation, he guaranteed the committee will be “taking on a far more robust investigatory role in the 2019-2020 session.”