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NY attorney general accuses Trump of civil fraud, but under a cloud of partisanship

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NY attorney general accuses Trump of civil fraud, but under a cloud of partisanship
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New York’s Democratic attorney general, who ran for office vowing to go after Donald Trump, did that yesterday in the form of a civil suit.

Letitia James also named Trump’s kids – Don Jr., Eric and Ivanka – in saying the Trump Organization committed all kinds of fraud in inflating real estate assets to get more favorable loans.

James used her platform – appearing just seconds after President Biden wrapped his U.N. speech denouncing Russia for trying to wipe Ukraine off the map – to accuse the Trumps and the company of violating state laws.

But the reason she can only file a civil suit is that the same allegations were the subject of a criminal probe by Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, and he decided not to bring charges, prompting two of his prosecutors to quit.

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New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks during a news conference at her office in New York.
New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks during a news conference at her office in New York.
(AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

James also said she would refer evidence to the Justice Department.

The three-year-old civil probe, in which Trump has pleaded the Fifth, alleges that he crossed all kinds of lines in manipulating the value of his properties “to unjustly enrich himself and to cheat the system,” James said.

But as she spoke, the sheer complexity of the case became evident. All real estate companies try to make their balance sheets look better than they are and have substantial leeway in doing that legally.

The AG would have to prove that Trump Organization officials shattered legal boundaries in the way they appraised their properties (one example: claiming his Trump Tower apartment was three times its actual size). The Trump side will bring in its own experts who will say these were reasonable valuations – which were accepted by major banks – and this could drag on in court for a long time.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Hilton Anatole on August 06, 2022, in Dallas, Texas.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Hilton Anatole on August 06, 2022, in Dallas, Texas.
(Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

“Another Witch Hunt by a racist Attorney General, Letitia James, who failed in her run for Governor, getting almost zero support from the public, and is now doing poorly” against GOP nominee Michael Henry. (While a Trafalgar poll puts Henry 1 point ahead of James, who is Black, the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics says the blue-state race is not competitive.)

Trump also said: “She is a fraud who campaigned on a ‘get Trump’ platform, despite the fact that the city is one of the crime and murder disasters of the world under her watch!” In fairness, the state attorney general’s office has nothing to do with prosecuting local crimes in New York City.

For a former president to face these kinds of charges is obviously extraordinary. Trump’s business success was at the heart of his first campaign, and the net worth he claims has always been integral to his sizable ego.

James said she’s not trying to put the company out of business – Trump can restructure, or reorganize in another state – but she is proposing pretty drastic remedies. The Trump Org would not be able to buy any real estate in New York for five years and have to remove the family members from their roles, which could cripple the firm.

But James let her partisan distaste for Trump show when she declared that his actions are not “the art of the deal” but “the art of the steal.” 

Meanwhile, Trump may yet have second thoughts about asking for a special master. Raymond Dearie, a Reagan appointee who had been the top federal judge in New York, is taking a no-nonsense approach to the former president’s claims. That’s summed up by this killer sound bite: “You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

Dearie is demanding that Trump provide proof that he somehow declassified all the documents he took to Mar-a-Lago. Trump has argued this rhetorically, but his lawyers have not made the argument in court, where knowingly false claims can be sanctioned.

Unless Trump can back up his words, the retired judge says he has to be guided by the fact that the documents, as we’ve all seen, were marked secret and top secret – and some contain intel from highly sensitive human sources and foreign governments.

The accounting sought by Dearie has even prompted Trump’s attorneys to acknowledge the possibility of an indictment, saying he can’t be forced to answer questions now that would be part of his defense in a criminal case.  

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So the target of the Justice Department investigation has opened a Pandora’s box and may not like what emerges. Dearie is certainly being tougher than Aileen Cannon, the Federalist Society member who Trump appointed after his election loss and who named the special master.

But as always with the endless investigations of Trump, the view that he’s being unfairly attacked – he uses the word “persecuted” – only boosts him with his base.

A Politico/Morning Consult poll says 52% of Republicans surveyed back Trump as their 2024 nominee. While that’s down from 57% a month ago, a period of intensely bad publicity for the 45th president, he crushes Ron DeSantis, with 19%.

Politico says some in Trump World regard the DOJ investigation as a political gift that has “allowed him to coalesce his base and provided him with tools to raise boatloads of money.”

Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower to meet with New York Attorney General Letitia James for a civil investigation on Aug. 10, 2022, in New York City. 

Former President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower to meet with New York Attorney General Letitia James for a civil investigation on Aug. 10, 2022, in New York City. 
(James Devaney/GC Images)

Then there’s this unnamed adviser who is granted anonymity to take this shot: “I don’t think there’s any stunt that DeSantis can attempt that will dislodge Trump as the clear frontrunner in this race at this point… with Trump at the center of the Democrat media hate machine, it’s going to be nearly impossible to dislodge him from Republican voters.”

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There was a time in journalism when an anonymous source couldn’t be quoted as saying things like “hate machine.”

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Of course these polls are premature, but can anyone really doubt that Trump has a virtual lock on the Republican nomination? He says he’ll run even if he’s indicted – and if he is, America will face “big problems” on a scale never before seen. Keep in mind, though, that he may never be charged, which would enable him to add the Justice probe to the list of “hoaxes.”

But whether Trump can win a general election – against Joe Biden, who just cast doubt on his candidacy, or someone else – very much remains to be seen.

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