Trump gets powerful new rival in Letitia James

President Trump has a new and powerful rival in Letitia James, the first woman and the first African American to serve as New York’s attorney general.

In just four months, James (D) has emerged as one of the most aggressive and ambitious litigators in the country.

{mosads}She’s filed suit against or launched investigations into some of the most dominant special interests in the country, from the opioid manufacturer Purdue Pharma and its owners the Sackler family to the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Facebook.

And she has made clear, from the campaign trail to the courtroom, that she is coming for Trump next.

In recent weeks, James’s office has sought bank records relating to the Trump Organization and its affiliates. She has continued a lawsuit brought by her predecessor against the now-defunct Trump Foundation, alleging violations of federal and state laws governing nonprofits.

Her office has joined or spearheaded some of the dozens of lawsuits against the Trump administration’s most controversial plans, including efforts to add a new question on citizenship status to the 2020 census and a plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico.

“As the next attorney general of [Trump’s] home state, I will be shining a bright light into every dark corner of his real estate dealings, and every dealing, demanding truthfulness at every turn,” James said in November.

Trump has noticed. In a December tweet, he said James “openly campaigned on a GET TRUMP agenda.”

James, 60, offers a striking contrast to her fellow New Yorker. Trump is the wealthy scion of a real estate development baron; James, who has six siblings, is the daughter of a maintenance man and customer service representative who defied her father’s wishes that she marry a plumber and put herself through Howard University School of Law.

{mossecondads}She started her legal career as a public defender, and later as New York’s public advocate she filed lawsuits against landlords for allegedly violating tenant rights.

Her résumé is packed with firsts. She became the first third-party candidate to win a seat on the New York City Council in three decades, when she won a special election on the Working Families Party line in 2003. She became the first black woman to win citywide office, this time as a Democrat, and then the first African American and the first woman to win the attorney general’s office, in 2018.

“Tish is fearless, and Tish feels compelled by a higher calling. She doesn’t really, I suspect, care who the enemy is,” said Christine Quinn, a longtime ally who served as Speaker of the City Council during James’s time in office.

James was traveling Wednesday and unavailable to comment.

In a city and state beset by political corruption, James has fashioned herself as a reformer. She led an investigation into the New York Department of Sanitation after the department botched the response to a major snowstorm; the city’s snowplows now come equipped with GPS units.

After winning citywide office, she filed more lawsuits than all three of her predecessors combined. In the process, she clashed with both Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) and his more liberal successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D).

“She’s independent,” Quinn said. “She’s going to inform you of what she’s going to do.”

James had planned to run for mayor once de Blasio’s term expires in 2021. But she saw an opening instead in Albany, when Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) resigned amid allegations he had abused several women. (Schneiderman was not charged.) James defeated two other well-known Democrats to win the nomination, and she cruised to election in November.

Now, James sits atop one of the most powerful attorneys general offices in the country, a perch from which she can both join or lead lawsuits against the administration and cast a wide investigative net — including into Trump, his businesses and his former foundation.

The New York attorney general’s office “has broad statutory authority, and it’s the cop on the beat for some of the most important industries in the world that are located in New York City,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), who ran against James in the primary and calls her a friend.

To her critics, James’s attentions are misplaced. Rather than focusing on Trump, some Republicans say, she should be focused more on Albany, where a parade of public officials have traded pinstripes for prison stripes.

“She promised to be a far-left attorney general, and she’s making good on that promise. Most people in this state, however, wish she would focus her attention on [Gov.] Andrew Cuomo rather than Donald Trump,” said Joseph Borelli, a Republican member of New York’s City Council. “This state has a rampant problem with political corruption, and to make your focus on a man 500 miles away in Washington when there are ample targets that the attorney general of New York should be looking at is a cause for concern.”

James showed off her power in March, when her office filed suit against Purdue Pharma, makers of the opioid OxyContin, and the Sackler family itself. The suit alleges the Sacklers transferred millions of dollars to overseas accounts, shielding those assets from litigation as investigators prepared to sue over the fast-growing opioid epidemic.

In a statement, Purdue Pharma accused James of trying cases “in the court of public opinion rather than the justice system.”

James has made an unexpected impact in national politics, too. On the campaign trail, she pledged to investigate the NRA’s tax-exempt status. After she won the Democratic primary, the NRA began an audit, in anticipation of the potential investigation.

That audit led to a legal battle between the NRA and its largest contractor, the advertising firm Ackerman McQueen — and to last week’s dramatic showdown between NRA President Oliver North, who has his own contract with Ackerman McQueen, and NRA chief executive Wayne LaPierre.

North stepped aside. LaPierre won another year atop the NRA. And, on Saturday, James opened her promised investigation.

Trump showed he took notice, in a tweet that referred to James without mentioning her by name.

“The NRA is under siege by Cuomo and the New York State A.G., who are illegally using the State’s legal apparatus to take down and destroy this very important organization, & others,” Trump wrote. “It must get its act together quickly, stop the internal fighting, & get back to GREATNESS — FAST!”

“Attorney General Letitia James is focused on enforcing the rule of law,” James’s office said in response. “In any case we pursue, we will follow the facts wherever they may lead. We wish the President would share our respect for the law.”

James’s investigations into the Trump organization and foundation are running in parallel to federal investigations of the president’s allies, some of which spun out of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. What makes them different, legal experts say, is that a president cannot issue pardons for state crimes, potentially exposing Trump’s inner circle to state charges.

“The New York attorney general’s office, because it’s not a federal office, because it’s not subject to a federal pardon, is going to play a significant role in upholding the rule of law in this country,” said D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, co-chair of the Democratic Attorneys General Association. “There’s no doubt that she’s got standing. There’s no doubt that she’s got the proper venue. All the alleged wrongdoings happened in New York.”

Tags Bill de Blasio Donald Trump Michael Bloomberg Oliver North Robert Mueller
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