Letitia “Tish” James assumed her post as New York’s attorney general 100 days ago on the heels of a campaign that vowed to investigate President Donald Trump and his business dealings.
So far, her office has subpoenaed two banks for records related to Trump Organization projects and has continued to pursue a lawsuit against the Trump Foundation, alleging it violated state and federal charities law. Asked by CNN about the lawsuit, Donald Trump Jr. dismissed it, saying there was “nothing to talk about – more nonsense.” She’s even pushed for the state assembly to pass legislation that would allow her office to pursue state charges for anyone the President pardons on federal charges.
Her office has also taken on issues affecting the entire nation, at times directly hitting the Trump administration’s policies.
James’ office will head to the Supreme Court to argue a case against the Trump administration’s attempt to add a question about citizenship to the 2020 census. Her office also joined a coalition of states in filing a motion to block the construction of a border wall. And there’s the suit, filed in July 2018, challenging a Department of Labor rule that would allow small businesses to get around the Affordable Care Act by offering limited health plans.
Her office’s pursuit of tax records and details of President Trump’s businesses, along with efforts by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, could be critical leading into the re-election campaign as the Mueller investigation has ended and House Democrats are only now accelerating their investigations.
James is the first black woman to be elected to a statewide office in New York and the first female state attorney general. Her campaign was partially based on a platform of investigating Trump.
“I will never be afraid to challenge this illegitimate President,” James said during her campaign.
“Most of his business activities are performed in New York,” James told MSNBC earlier this month. “He engages in business in New York. He operates in New York. And it’s really critically important that New Yorkers, and as taxpayers … that we understand and know whether or not he devalued his corporations and he received some tax benefits thereof. That he engaged in false claims against New Yorkers and as a result of that we are seeking to see what we can do legally.”
Trump himself has weighed in, tweeting in December that James “openly campaigned on a GET TRUMP agenda,” adding that he feels he “will never be treated fairly by these people.”
Meanwhile, the office is also involved in a sweeping lawsuit filed in March against opioid manufacturers and members of the Sackler family who own Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin.
’Dispassionately follow the facts’
At first, James’ comments concerned some of those who had worked in the attorney general’s office, including former director of communications and senior counsel for policy Eric Soufer.
“I think people didn’t quite know what to make of it – they weren’t sure if it was the tip of the iceberg or if it was just sort of routine political rhetoric,” Soufer said. “But I think what we’ve seen in the first 100 days since Tish has taken office is that they’ve really put their heads down and gotten to work on advancing cases and investigations that were already in progress and launching some new really important affirmative litigation against the Trump Administration.”
Republican strategist Evan Siegfried has not been a vocal critic of James but feels that positions including state attorneys general should function above the political fray.
“Any person running for a law enforcement or judicial position should not be making political statements or statements targeted toward individuals or organizations,” Siegfried said. “While it might be good for charging up the electorate, it certainly is not good for a legitimate action to be taken in court.”
But Siegfried believes that James’ rhetoric has changed.
“Her statements, while still political, are couched more in the fashion of a lawyer,” Siegfried said.
CNN asked James’ office if she has decided to take a more muted political tone during her first months in office. She responded with a written statement.
“The facts are what they are, and in court, facts and the law are what matter most,” James said in a statement to CNN. “We are diligent in our work and dispassionately follow the facts to wherever they lead us. There is nothing partisan about that.”
James’ comments have already been cited in one case that her office is working on. Attorneys for the Trump Foundation accused the New York Attorney General’s Office of political motivation in filing a suit against the foundation.
“Newly elected New York Attorney General Letitia James ran on an anti-Trump campaign where she expressed grave antipathy and animus toward Mr. Trump,” attorneys for the foundation, as well as Trump and his three eldest children wrote in the filing.
The suit was filed in June 2018 and James took office in January 2019. Attorneys for the Trump Foundation previously filed a motion to dismiss the suit citing political bias, which was denied by a judge in November.
An office with ‘vast powers’
As James focuses on pending cases, making sure she has the right staff in place will continue to be a priority. The end of 2018 saw several high-level exits from the office, but a spokeswoman for the office says all high-level, executive positions have been filled.
Former federal prosecutor Duncan Levin said he believes James is tackling the types of issues that her constituents elected her to look into from her new powerful post, not the least of which are the Trump Foundation and the Trump family itself.
“The Attorney General’s Office is one with vast powers,” Levin said. “While its criminal powers are somewhat limited, it does have original jurisdiction over money laundering offenses and that gives her real muscle.”
Former staffers emphasized the importance of bringing in talent with federal prosecution experience.
Soufer said it’s become more important for the New York’s attorney general’s office to have a team with federal experience it can lean on when questions come up about whether federal policies can be challenged.
“When Trump announces heinous policies, a lot of people in the office have an instinctual reaction to it – a negative reaction,” Soufer said. “But there’s only a handful of people who can actually draw a map from how you can go from being repulsed by it to actually overturning it in the court system.”