New York state Attorney General Letitia James filed a civil fraud lawsuit on Wednesday against former President Donald Trump, three of his children and a pair of business associates, capping more than three years of investigation into the Trump Organization.
The probe came to a head recently when Trump – who had failed with his own lawsuit seeking to stop the investigation – declined to answer questions under oath during a deposition, invoking his Fifth Amendment rights hundreds of times.
“No one in this country can pick and choose how the law applies to them, and Donald Trump is no exception,” James said in May. “As we have said all along, we will continue this investigation undeterred.”
James, 63, is no stranger to the tense showdowns with powerful political figures. It was the result of her investigation into sexual harassment allegations against former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo – a fellow Democrat whose ticket she ran on when first elected attorney general in 2018 – that ultimately led to his resignation in August 2021. Cuomo, like Trump, has since assailed her with accusations of political bias. Last week, he filed an ethics complaint against James over the handling of the probe, which was conducted by outside counsel and corroborated the claims of multiple former staffers.
Though James has been mostly quiet in public when it comes to Cuomo, except to defend the integrity of her work, she has been a consistent thorn in his side. Early last year, her office released a damning report that revealed his administration undercounted the number of Covid-19 deaths in nursing homes during the early stages of the pandemic – a major blow to the Cuomo’s image as a pandemic-era truth-teller.
James has been more direct in her past criticism of Trump, most notably during her 2018 campaign for attorney general.
“We are angrier and more deeply divided than we’ve ever been at any point in our history since the Civil War. And at the eye of the storm is Donald Trump, ripping families apart, threatening women’s most basic rights,” James said in a video produced by NowThis News. “I’m running for attorney general because I will never be afraid to challenge this illegitimate president when our fundamental rights are at stake.”
Trump has sought to use that and other statements, including a pledge during a 2018 debate to “focus on Donald Trump” and “follow his money,” as evidence that her investigation was politically motivated. Trump, in highlighting those remarks, ignored her assertion – during the same event – that anyone in her position should be “following the facts and following the evidence.”
After his deposition in the current case, Trump called James – who was present – “a renegade prosecutor” and labeled the probe as “vindictive.”
Trump’s lawyer doubled down on that messaging in response to the lawsuit announced by James on Wednesday.
“Today’s filing is neither focused on the facts nor the law – rather, it is solely focused on advancing the Attorney General’s political agenda,” Trump attorney Alina Habba said in a statement denying any wrongdoing by the former president.
Longtime political figure
Before James ascended to become the state’s top prosecutor, she established herself as a leading progressive political figure in New York City. A graduate of Howard University Law School, she worked as a Legal Aid lawyer and assistant state attorney general in Brooklyn. She won her first election, to the city council in New York, in 2003, running on the ballot line of the Working Families Party, a progressive organization created to operate as a check on the Democratic Party in New York but has since grown into a national group backing liberal candidates around the country.
New York City Comptroller Brad Lander was an early Working Families Party activist and spent time on the council with James. He remains a supporter and, in an interview last year, described James as a progressive champion who presaged many of the national leaders from the Democratic Party’s left flank.
“This was a long time before AOC or Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, well before Bill de Blasio – this was somebody who was really speaking with an energetic progressive energy and just a fierce integrity,” Lander told CNN, recalling her advocacy against developers’ push to gentrify Brooklyn.
James was also described as a trailblazer to by Lupe Todd-Medina, who has worked as a campaign communications adviser to a wide swath of top New York officials, including Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, Cuomo in 2018 and Gov. Kathy Hochul. Though she and James have not always been ideologically aligned, Todd-Medina lauded James’ personal political courage and loyalty.
“As she has elevated in her career, she’s always kept the door open. Which is also a testament to her and her values, her ethics,” Todd-Medina said. “It says a lot, because again, it does go back to, we’re all these Black women together in this space and we’ve got to kind of look out for each other.”
But, Todd-Medina added, that desire shouldn’t be confused with hesitance or weakness when it comes to her job.
“I wouldn’t mess with her,” Todd-Medina said. “I think she’s lovely, and I wouldn’t mess with her.”
James was elected New York City Public Advocate in 2013, succeeding de Blasio, who won his first term as mayor that year. Both were overwhelmingly reelected in 2017 and James appeared to be on track to again follow de Blasio when term limits ended his mayoralty last year.
But early on in her second stint as public advocate, in May 2018, New York’s political order was upended when then-state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman was hit with multiple sexual and domestic allegations. He quickly stepped down, and James soon announced her candidacy to replace him.
Months later, during the 2018 midterms, James became the first Black person and woman elected to win statewide office. That she did it after exchanging endorsements with Cuomo rankled some on the left, which had clashed repeatedly with the former governor during his years in office. Still, her relationship with New York’s progressive movement remained strong and, following Cuomo’s resignation, she was the left’s choice to run for governor this year.
Last fall, she entered the race – challenging Hochul, the former lieutenant governor who took over when Cuomo left, in the Democratic primary. But she bowed out of the campaign before the end of the year, withdrawing in December to run for reelection to her current job.
This February, James spoke at the state party convention, where she accepted their unofficial nomination.
“When I was elected attorney general,” she said, “I vowed to act without fear or favor to hold the powerful accountable, whether Republican or Democrat, in the public or private sector.”
The field of primary candidates vying for the job cleared after her decision to run for reelection and James secured the nomination for a second term running unopposed in June.