A New York judge ruled Thursday that former President Donald Trump and two of his adult children must comply with subpoenas that require them to answer questions under oath and turn over other evidence for a civil investigation of the Trump Organization.
The ruling came after a contentious hearing in Manhattan Supreme Court, where lawyers for Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump attacked Attorney General Letitia James for conducting what they said was a probe tainted by political bias, and a violation of the elder Trump’s constitutional rights.
The Trump lawyers had sought to block the subpoenas on those and other grounds.
James is investigating whether the Trump Organization improperly stated the valuations of various real estate assets to obtain more favorable loans, insurance rates and tax benefits. Donald Trump Jr. still runs the company with his brother Eric, while Ivanka previously was a top executive at the firm.
Trump also faces a pending criminal probe into the same issues by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. James has sent investigators from her office to assist in the DA’s probe.
Judge Arthur Engoron, in his ruling, wrote that the Trumps “assert that the issuance of civil subpoenas while a criminal investigation is ongoing allows [Office of the Attorney General] to extract information from them under the guise of a civil proceeding without OAG’s having to offer them the immunity that a grand jury setting would afford them.”
“This argument completely misses the mark,” Engoron wrote.
“Neither OAG nor the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office has subpoenaed the New Trump Respondents to appear before a grand jury.”
During the hearing, which was conducted via remote video hookup, Trump’s lawyer Alina Habba, several times was reprimanded by Engoron’s clerk for interrupting the judge.
“Counselor when the judge speaks you need to stop talking,” the clerk told Habba, who during her arguments suggested that Hillary Clinton should be under investigation by James, and not Trump.
Habba argued that the probe of Trump is unconstitutional and should be thrown out —even if James’ office has evidence of wrongdoing.
“It’s per se invalid,” Habba said of the investigation. “It doesn’t matter if they find all sorts of incriminating evidence.”
“The evidence is irrelevant,” Habba said at another point
Habba pointed to repeated negative comments James made about Trump while campaigning for attorney general, which included vowing to investigate him for things such as money laundering.
“Letitia James can’t run away from her own words,” Habba said.
And the lawyer said the probe was sparked by bias by the Democrat James against Trump because he is a Republican, as opposed to legitimate questions about his business practices, which Trump’s own former personal attorney Michael Cohen has testified were corrupt.
“He’s allowed to be a Republican,” Habba said.
Habba also argued that Trump is a member of a “protected class,” citing his exercise of political speech as president.
That legal designation is applied to groups who qualify for special protections against discrimination.
“If he was not who he is, she would not be doing this, your honor,” Habba said. “That’s what my argument is.”
But Engoron shot back, “He’s not a protected class.”
The judge added that even if James has a grudge against Trump, that does not amount to “unlawful discrimination.”
Kevin Wallace, an attorney for James’ office, responded by quoting the famed New York prosecutor Robert Morgenthau, who had been accused of bias against the notorious lawyer Roy Cohn.
“A man is not immune from prosecution just because a United States attorney happens not to like him,” Morganthau had said of Cohn, who later went on to represent Trump in the 1970s and 1980s.
The lawyers for the Trumps also argued that the law effectively barred James from having them answer questions under oath by investigators while she and the DA’s office were conducting criminal investigations of the Trump Organization.
The proper venue for such questions is a grand jury, they argued.
But Trump’s criminal defense lawyer Ron Fischetti then went a step further and argued it would be improper for James to use a grand jury to question the former president.
Engororon was skeptical of those arguments, saying that Trump and his children could refuse to answer questions in either venue by invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination.
The judge noted that Trump Organization executive Eric Trump had done just that hundreds of times during a deposition by James’ investigators.
Fischetti objected to that idea, arguing, in effect, that such a ploy would make the elder Trump look bad to the public.
“If he goes in and follows my advice [to refuse to testify under the Fifth Amendment] that’ll be on every front page in the newspaper in the world,” Fischetti.
“And how can I possibly pick a jury in that case?” Fischetti added, implicitly conceding the risk of criminal prosecution Trump is facing in the probe.