A New York State Supreme Court judge on Thursday ruled that former President Donald Trump and his two oldest children will have to submit to questioning by the state’s attorney general in a civil investigation into potential fraud at the Trump Organization.
Attorneys representing Trump, his son Donald Trump Jr. and his daughter Ivanka Trump had moved to have subpoenas for their testimony canceled. They contended that it was improper for New York Attorney General Letitia James to be pursuing both a civil and a criminal investigation at the same time. James is cooperating in a criminal case that was brought by the district attorney of Manhattan.
Judge Arthur Engoron said that the Trumps’ legal argument “completely misses the mark” and that the attorney general was within her rights to demand testimony from Trump and his children.
However, while the name of the court on which Engoron sits, the Supreme Court of the state of New York, seems to suggest the ruling’s finality, the outcome is not so certain. The state of New York has two levels of judicial review that are above the Supreme Court — first the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court, and finally the Court of Appeals.
This means that the Trumps have the right to appeal Engoron’s ruling, something their attorneys signaled Thursday that they planned to do.
The case James is pursuing against Trump has its roots in revelations dating to the closing days of the Trump presidency, when Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, testified before Congress that he was aware of financial irregularities in the Trump Organization’s bookkeeping.
Specifically, Cohen alleged that Trump and Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, systematically under-reported the value of the company’s assets when disclosing them for tax purposes, in order to minimize the firm’s tax liability. Additionally, Cohen said, they would overstate the value of the same assets when pledging them as collateral for bank loans and other financial transactions.
Last month, James submitted a filing to the court listing multiple instances in which the Trump Organization had provided information to different parties in different transactions that was contradicted elsewhere.
In the same filing, James referred to testimony from Weisselberg indicating that Trump kept paper records of his financial transactions, but despite requests from her office, none of those records had been disclosed to investigators.
A raucous hearing
The judge’s ruling on Thursday followed a hearing Wednesday in which the attorney representing Donald Trump, Alina Habba, complained that the investigation was political in nature and ought to be shut down.
More than once, Habba had to be warned to stop interrupting Engoron when he was speaking, and she was also criticized for directly addressing Kevin Wallace, an attorney working for James’ office, a breach of courtroom protocol.
“I want to know, Mr. Wallace, Ms. James, are you going to go after Hillary Clinton for what she’s doing to my client?” Habba demanded at one point. “That she spied at Trump Tower in your state? Are you going to look into her business dealings?”
Habba was referring to a debunked claim that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had somehow conspired to spy on Trump while he was president.
The claims from Trump’s attorney that James’ investigation has a political taint are based pledges she made as a candidate running for attorney general. James regularly promised to investigate Trump’s business dealings.
In his ruling, Engoron acknowledged that fact, but said that in his view, the significant evidence suggesting potential wrongdoing by the Trump Organization meant that failing to mount an investigation “would have been a blatant dereliction of duty” on James’ part.
“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’” he wrote.
Engoron also dismissed the claim by attorneys representing the Trumps that, by forcing them to testify in a civil case, the attorney general would be collecting statements that could be used against them in the criminal probe.
Engoron noted that the Trumps would retain their “absolute right” under the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to refuse to answer any questions that they feel might incriminate them. He reminded them that a third Trump child, Eric Trump, had invoked his right more than 500 times in testimony provided in the same case.
Trump, James respond
After the ruling was issued Thursday, Trump issued a rambling statement that repeated the claim that Clinton had spied on him while he was in the White House, attacked James for comments she made about him during her run for office, and insisted there was no basis for either her civil case or the criminal case being pursued by the Manhattan district attorney.
“It is a continuation of the greatest Witch Hunt in history—and remember, I can’t get a fair hearing in New York because of the hatred of me by Judges and the judiciary. It is not possible!” Trump wrote.
“Today, justice prevailed,” James said in a statement released by her office.
It continued, “No one will be permitted to stand in the way of the pursuit of justice, no matter how powerful they are. No one is above the law.”