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‘Boilerplate Doesn’t Cut It’: Judge Finds Donald Trump in Contempt of Court for Flouting an Order to Comply with Letitia James’ Subpoena


Letitia James, Donald Trump

Former President Donald Trump is in civil contempt of court for flouting an order to comply with New York Attorney General Letitia James’s subpoena, a judge ruled on Monday. Trump must pay $10,000 a day until he has shown compliance with the judge’s order.

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron found that there was no admissible evidence that Trump has been compliant.

“Boilerplate doesn’t cut it,”  the judge declared.

Addressing a figure absent in the courtroom, Engoron intoned: “Mr. Trump, I know you take your business seriously, and I take mine seriously,” later punctuating that sentiment with the banging of a gavel.

The judge’s ruling emphasized a point made by Assistant Attorney General Andrew Amer early in his arguments.

“Donald Trump is not beyond the reach of this court’s authority,” Amer said.

Outside the courtroom, Trump’s attorney Alina Habba told reporters that she planned to appeal, calling the decision “inappropriate” and labeling the fine “crazy.”

“Pulling Teeth”

The attorney general’s investigation has lasted more than two years, and she has been in litigation with the Trump Organization roughly that amount of time. James has claimed in court documents to have found evidence that Trump may have used “fraudulent or misleading” asset valuations on six properties to obtain economic benefits. Her office has not filed a civil case, but she has contributed to a criminal investigation that indicted the company’s ex-chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg.

Early on Monday, Justice Engoron asked why the investigation has taken so long and what the attorney general’s office has to show for it. Proceedings began with brief statements from each party as to its status.

Assistant Attorney General Kevin Wallace responded that is because the Trump Organization is a “closely-held, family company” that has been uncooperative.

“It’s been pulling teeth to get documents,” Wallace said, likening the investigation to an “unguided tour.”

In one instance, Wallace cited a $41 million cash liability owed to members who paid refundable initiation fees.

“Elsewhere Mr. Trump says the membership liabilities are zero,” Wallace asserted. “These types of issues repeat across clubs.”

“Each of these assets is like a Russian nesting doll, and that doesn’t even get to tax deductions,” he added.

Arguing for Trump, Habba claimed that the company has complied in good faith with an investigation that she has described as “aimless.”

“It is truly a fishing expedition,” Habba said, also describing it as a waste of taxpayer money and a “political crusade.”

Even before the contempt motion, Attorney General James repeatedly accused the Trump Organization being non-compliant and stonewalling. By the numbers, she counted 75 custodial interviews, more than 171 separate productions, and more than 6 million pages of documents provided.

“We are right on schedule,” Habba said.

“Exactly Zero Documents”

As he began his arguments about the contempt motion, Amer painted a sharply different portrait of habitual delay and meritless objection to a lawful probe.

“Mr. Trump had his day in court challenging this subpoena—and lost,” Amer said.

According to Amer, Trump never raised any objection to any of the eight document requests in the subpoena. The attorney general’s office received “exactly zero documents” on March 31, only “boilerplate” objections from Trump, Amer added.

“This Court’s order was not an opening bid for a negotiation or an invitation for a new round of challenges to the subpoena,” Amer wrote in a 26-page memorandum earlier this month. “It was, rather, a court order entered after full briefing and argument during which Mr. Trump could have, but did not, raise any of the purported objections or assertions he has now raised.”

Habba claimed that she personally flew to Mar a Lago to meet with Trump, who allegedly helped her search for responsive documents point-by-point. All, she said, had been provided to the office of the attorney general.

Justice Engoron and his clerk Allison Greenfield both asked why they have no sworn affidavit from either to that effect. For Engoron, the question of Trump’s affidavit was the “800 lb. gorilla” in the courtroom. Habba insisted that Trump would happily provide one, adding that is because the former president is an “honest” person, to the “dismay” of some in the room. She also offered to supply one herself.

For Amer, this was not enough. HaystackID, the GOP-linked eDiscovery firm retained by the Trump Organization, found that the former president had two cell phones, and those should be imaged, he said.

Trump has always insisted that he does not send text messages or emails, and Amer said that forensic imaging should answer the question, not Trump’s say-so.

[Images via Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images]

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."