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New NY attorney general vows to target Trump

New York's new Attorney General Letitia James campaigned on investigating President Trump and his business dealings. CNN's Athena Jones reports.

Posted: Jan 4, 2019 10:42 AM
Updated: Jan 4, 2019 11:00 AM

The New Year brings a new foe for President Donald Trump: New York's newly sworn in Attorney General Letitia James.

She's already made history by becoming the first woman in New York to be elected to the office. She is also the first African-American woman to serve as the state's top attorney and the first black woman to be elected to statewide office.

But she's made clear that her goal is to make history in other ways.

James campaigned on promises to investigate the President and his business dealings and has pushed for the passage in the state assembly's first 100 days of legislation that would allow her to pursue state charges for anyone the President pardons on federal charges -- a hedge against any efforts by Trump to undo convictions won by special counsel Robert Mueller or federal prosecutors investigating various Trump associates.

She's indicated she plans to investigate Trump's finances and his real estate holdings.

"President Trump was almost on the verge of bankruptcy and then all of a sudden he was flush with money and we all know that domestic banks were not offering him -- extending any credit to him and so the question is where did he get all of that money from," James said in a campaign video last fall.

She also plans to continue an ongoing probe into whether Trump's continued interest in his New York businesses violates the Constitution's ban on so-called "emoluments," which bars presidents from taking money from foreign governments.

The issue is already being pursued by the District of Columbia and Maryland, whose attorneys general are suing in federal court over the President's interest in the Trump International Hotel, which has done business with foreign governments. The Justice Department has moved to stop the case from proceeding.

Lawyers for Trump and the Trump Organization did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.

James' office will also continue a lawsuit brought by her predecessor against the president's charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, as well as the president himself and three of his adult children Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric. The charity agreed last month to dissolve under court supervision, but the state continues to seek restitution.

James' outspoken criticism of Trump has already inspired a backlash from the president.

In December, Trump complained about James on Twitter, without mentioning her name, writing that she "openly campaigned on a GET TRUMP agenda."

Trump also criticized New York's two previous attorneys general -- Barbara Underwood and Eric Schneiderman -- and has repeatedly questioned the motivations of Mueller and his team.

James, 60, made her opposition to Trump clear in public statements during her campaign, calling him incompetent, ill-equipped and "an embarrassment to all that we stand for."

"I'm running for attorney general, because I will never be afraid to challenge this illegitimate president when our fundamental rights are at stake," she said last fall in an op-ed video for NowThis. "He should be charged with obstructing justice. I believe that the president of these United States can be indicted for criminal offenses and we would join with law enforcement and other attorneys general across this nation in removing this president from office."

"It's important that everyone understand that the days of Donald Trump are coming to an end," she says later in the video.

James' declaration that Trump is "illegitimate" and her suggestion that his days in office are coming to an end could raise concerns about her ability to be impartial, wrote Chuck Rosenberg, a former US attorney, senior FBI official and chief of the Drug Enforcement Administration, in an article on the blog Lawfare.

Rosenberg argued James' comments before taking office "demonstrate a prejudgment of the facts and a political predisposition to the issues she now must manage apolitically and dispassionately."

He suggested that James consider recusing herself or, at a minimum, stop talking about the planned investigations.

"The choice is hers, but she ought to fully and deeply appreciate that injudicious comments undermine her office and her cases -- legally and factually -- and will call into question, in the public eye, the credibility of her work," he wrote.

Andrew G. Celli, Jr., a New York-based lawyer at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady LLP who worked with James when she was assistant attorney general, said he believes James will follow the facts.

"As attorney general, she is going make decisions based on what the evidence supports and where it takes her -- if it takes her anywhere," Celli said. "She'll make those decisions on the merits."

The Howard University Law School-educated lawyer previously served as an assistant attorney general and a public defender. She was New York City's public advocate and was a city council member for nearly a decade before that, building a reputation as a fighter for the interests of ordinary New Yorkers.

In addition to going after Trump, James campaigned on promises to tackle Wall Street abuses, protect immigrants' rights, fight the opioid epidemic and rein in abuses by law enforcement.

Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at the nonprofit advocacy group Public Citizen, said James' past rhetoric could give her critics " some success in the court of public opinion."

But Eric Soufer, who served as director of communications and senior counsel for policy under Schneiderman, said while politics may make James' job more challenging, they are unlikely to harm any case she brings.

"I don't think it's going to torpedo any of her cases, based on what she's said already, but because these cases are in a politically charged environment they can make the day-to-day work of litigation more challenging. It was true for her predecessor too," Soufer said.

Soufer suggested one of James' biggest challenges will be managing the expectations of New Yorkers eager see her fulfill her promise to take down the President.

"The most difficult challenge will be the battle of unrealistic expectations. I think that the attorney general and her team will be able to hit a grand slam in the courts in a lot of these investigations, but there will certainly be a segment of progressives that won't be satisfied with anything other than removal from office,' he said. "In my experience, that can drive any attorney general crazy."

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