A Manhattan judge refused to quash civil subpoenas and depositions for former President Donald Trump and his children in a blistering ruling on Thursday, writing that it would have been “blatant dereliction of duty” not to investigate them.
“For OAG not to have investigated the original respondents, and not to have subpoenaed the new Trump respondents, would have been a blatant dereliction of duty (and would have broken an oft repeated campaign promise). Indeed, the impetus for the investigation was not personal animus, not racial or ethnic or other discrimination, not campaign promises, but was sworn congressional testimony by former Trump associate Michael Cohen that respondents were ‘cooking the books,'” Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron wrote in a 8-page ruling.
Trump and his children Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. have 21 days from the date of his order to sit for a deposition, Engoron ruled.
“Copious Evidence of Possible Financial Fraud”
During a freewheeling hearing that lasted roughly two hours on Thursday morning, Trump’s attorney Alina Habba tore into New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), whom she suggested should be brought before an ethics committee for investigating her client.
“She used his name to became AG,” Habba said. “She tried to use his name to become governor,” referring to her abandoned run for the office of the man she helped dethrone: ex-New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D).
Habba remarked that the latter run did not “work out well for [James].”
Rejecting such claims, Engoron wrote: “Here, the new Trump respondents have failed to submit any evidence that the law was not applied to others similarly situated, nor have they submitted any evidence of discrimination based on race, religion, or any other impermissible or arbitrary classification.”
When running for office, James did not hide her intentions to investigate Trump. She openly described him as an “illegitimate president” and, his attorneys say, rhetorically convicted Trump of a crime for which he had never been charged when she said on the campaign trail: “We need to find out where he’s laundered money.” There is no indication that James is investigating Trump for alleged money laundering, but she has touted her civil investigation about the Trump Organization’s financial practices since it became public in 2020. James markedly changed her tone after taking office, issuing public statements that she follows the facts wherever they may lead.
“No one will be permitted to stand in the way of the pursuit of justice, no matter how powerful they are,” she wrote on Twitter, in response to Engoran’s ruling.
The probe was quietly taking place a year earlier, but the stakes became higher when it became apparent that it was operating in tandem with a criminal investigation by then-Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance (D), who indicted the Trump Organization and its former chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg on a raft of tax fraud offenses. Trump’s attorneys were quick to note that James attended Weisselberg’s hearing and spoke to the press after that. They claim that she has dropped all pretense of acting in a strictly civil law capacity and say she is working “hand in glove” with current-DA Alvin Bragg (D).
Noting every prosecutor behind the civil and criminal probes have been elected Democrats, Trump’s attorneys have been quick to paint the investigations as politically motivated.
Justice Engoron signaled his skepticism about that argument in a Thursday morning hearing.
“How do we know that the motive is Donald Trump’s speech rather than his financial practices?” Engoron said, noting that Trump’s beliefs do not figure into some 600 documents in the docket.
Kevin Wallace, the attorney general’s acting chief for the investor protection bureau, quoted former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morganthau’s line about Trump’s oft-described mentor Roy Cohn.
“A man is not immune from prosecution merely because a United States attorney happens not to like him,” Morganthau replied when Cohn complained about an alleged political vendetta.
The attorney general’s office has said their investigation has been productive, allegedly uncovering that the former president’s company inflated the size of his Trump Tower triplex by nearly three times or tax benefits, did not assign a value to the Trump brand, and may have used “fraudulent or misleading” asset valuations on six properties to obtain economic benefits.
Referring to such allegations, Engoron wrote: “In the final analysis, a State Attorney General commences investigating a business entity, uncovers copious evidence of possible financial fraud, and wants to question, under oath, several of the entities’ principals, including its namesake. She has the clear right to do so.”
“Reminiscent of Lewis Carroll”
Indeed, days before Thursday’s hearing, Trump’s longtime accounting firm Mazars parted ways with the former president and his company, writing that Trump’s “Statements of Financial Condition from 2011-2020 can no longer be relied on” and must be retracted. The judge found Trump’s positive spin on that development worthy of classic works of surrealist and dystopian fiction.
“The idea that an accounting firm’s announcement that no one should rely on a decade’s worth of financial statements that it issued based on numbers submitted by an entity somehow exonerates that entity and renders an investigation into its past practices moot is reminiscent of Lewis Carroll (“When I use a word, Humpty Dumpty said … it means just what I chose it to mean – neither more nor less’); George Orwell (‘War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength’); and ‘alternative facts,'” Engoron wrote, evoking the phrase used by Trump’s former senior counselor Kellyanne Conway.
In addition to impugning James, Habba also attacked the former Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen as “discredited,” calling his congressional testimony the basis of the attorney general’s probe.
Calling Law&Crime immediately after the hearing, Cohen shot back that Habba’s jibe “reeks of desperation.”
“Trump’s financial impropriety may be an allegation but very soon will be a reality,” he said. “Numbers don’t lie. People do.”
Attorney Alan Futerfas, arguing for the president’s children, argued that the civil investigation could put his clients in criminal jeopardy. During criminal proceedings, one can assert a Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination without any adverse inference being drawn, but that is not true of a civil investigation. He argued that the what he described as dual nature of James’s investigation stripped his clients of that constitutional right.
Engoron skewered that argument in his ruling.
“The target of a hybrid civil/criminal investigation cannot use the Fifth Amendment as both a sword and a shield; a shield against questions and a sword against the investigation itself,” he wrote. “When they are deposed, the New Trump Respondents will have the right to refuse to answer any questions that they claim might incriminate them, and that refusal may not be commented on or used against them in a criminal prosecution. However, there is no unfairness in allowing the jurors in a civil case to know these refusals and to draw their own conclusions.”
Read the ruling, below:
This is a developing story.
[Images via Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images]
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]