WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — While special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election could pose the most immediate threat to Donald Trump’s presidency, there’s another looming threat on the horizon.
On Nov. 6, voters in the Empire State will select a new attorney general, and all of the leading Democrats running for the office are eager to take on Trump by either continuing Mueller’s work or mounting an entirely new investigation into the president.
In an interview last Thursday, Tish James, the leading Democratic contender, told Yahoo News that she should be one of the president’s top fears, along with Mueller and the possibility that Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen could cooperate with federal prosecutors.
“The president of the United States has to worry about three things; Mueller, Cohen, and Tish James. We’re all closing in on him,” James said.
James, the New York City public advocate, is leading the pack of four Democrats who will face off in a primary on Sept. 13. The lone Republican in the race has decidedly slim chances in a state where Democrats have nearly double the number of voters and the attorney general hasn’t come from the GOP since the last century.
The outcome of race could add a new layer of complexity for President Trump, who in the last month alone has sent out ten tweets about the investigation he calls a “rigged witch hunt.” Last week, Trump declared that the U.S. attorney general “should stop” it “right now, before it continues to stain our country any further.”
However, even if Trump stops Mueller, the election in New York could create a new legal nemesis for the president.
New York’s attorney general is in a unique position because the president’s real estate business and his campaign are both headquartered in the city, giving the state’s top prosecutor jurisdiction over many Trump properties as well as activities that took place during the 2016 election. That would potentially include the infamous meeting in Manhattan between the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and a Kremlin-linked attorney who allegedly offered the campaign “dirt” on Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton.
The candidates appeared at a forum in Westchester County last Thursday evening where Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, another candidate, emphasized the New York attorney general’s jurisdiction over the president.
“Yes, we open the paper … every day wanting to know what Mueller is doing, but there are things the New York State attorney general can do to take on the threat of Donald Trump that nobody else can do,” she said.
Both James and Teachout have said they would want to bring suits against Trump under the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bars presidents from taking gifts or profits from foreign officials.
“There’s a lot of property here in New York state that I believe the president of the United States has basically inured to his benefit, and I do believe that he’s engaged in self-enrichment,” said James.
Trump is already facing three suits regarding emoluments. Attorneys general in Maryland and the District of Columbia have brought a case against Trump arguing the president is violating the law when foreign officials visit his hotel in the nation’s capital. The watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) is also pursuing a similar case. And 200 Democrats in Congress have asked a federal judge to require Trump to obtain congressional approval before accepting emoluments.
Teachout’s expertise is in anti-corruption law. She has already been involved in the current emoluments cases against the president. Teachout joined the board of CREW shortly after Trump was elected and worked on the group’s case. Her scholarship has also been cited in the Maryland and D.C. case.
“I was one of two experts in the country in emoluments before he took office. I literally wrote the book on corruption and anti-corruption laws, and I’ve been advising attorneys general in other states on bringing this suit,” Teachout said at the forum.
“But there’s a gaping hole in it. The victory could lead to the divestment of the Trump Hotel in D.C., but we need the divestment of all the businesses, and the businesses are located here in New York,” she continued.
Before taking office, Trump and his attorneys announced he would turn over control of his company to his family. While he’s not involved in the daily operations of the business, Trump still collects on the companies’ profits.
Rudy Giuliani, a former New York City mayor who is now on Trump’s legal team, dismissed the idea of an emoluments suit as a “wacky theory.” He called the Democratic attorney general candidates “a bunch of political yahoos” and said their threats of an emoluments suit where a “totally political” and “disgraceful” attempt to drum up votes.
“It’s hard to respond to all that. It’s all political. Let’s see what they would do,” Giuliani said.
There wasn’t supposed to be much of a race for attorney general in New York. Eric Schneiderman was expected to easily win a third term before he abruptly resigned in May following allegations he engaged in abusive behavior in romantic relationships with multiple women.
In May, a New York City attorney made a court filing claiming Trump’s close allies were aware of some of Schneiderman’s issues before they became public. Yahoo News asked Teachout and James if they believed the previous attorney general didn’t fully confront Trump due to his personal problems.
“I can say that there have been missed opportunities,” Teachout said of Schneiderman.
James pointed to Schneiderman’s decision not to pursue an emoluments case.
“There is a criticism of him that he did not pursue the emoluments case. Why that is, I don’t know. I can’t speak for him,” James said of Schneiderman. “But I can tell you this: that Letitia James as the next attorney general will be very aggressive and will not miss a beat. I wake up each and every day committed to serving justice.”
Teachout also noted that Schneiderman’s replacement, acting attorney general Barbara Underwood, brought a case against Trump’s charitable foundation weeks after her predecessor resigned. Underwood’s suit accused Trump of engaging in a “pattern of illegal conduct,” including “willful self-dealing” by, among other things, using the foundation for a fundraiser that he touted during his presidential campaign.
“I can’t speak for the prior officeholder at all. I can say that when Barbara Underwood took over, she brought a bombshell of a lawsuit in the Trump Foundation case basically within a month,” said Teachout.
Both Teachout and James would keep Underwood on in the attorney general’s office if they won the election.
Schneiderman may not have brought an emoluments case, but before his sudden downfall, the former attorney general pursued Trump on several fronts.
Since Trump took office, Schneiderman filed a spate of lawsuits in conjunction with other attorneys general against Trump administration policies, including the travel ban, the repeal of DACA and rollbacks in environmental regulations. All of the Democrats vying to replace Schneiderman have said they hope to continue these efforts to oppose the president’s policy agenda.
Schneiderman also had been cooperating with the Mueller probe. This collaboration between the New York attorney general and the special counsel is important because the president could pardon anyone charged by Mueller at the federal level, but has no power to stop state charges.
All four Democrats vying to replace Schneiderman, who include attorney Leecia Eve, have said they want to continue his work with Mueller.
Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, who’s also running, has argued he’s best suited to work with Mueller because of his Washington experience.
“I am deeply immersed in the details of the Russia investigation and all of the issues before the Intelligence Committee in the house,” Maloney said at the candidates’ forum.
Maloney, who did not respond to requests for an interview, suggested at the forum that he believed supporting Mueller is the major way the attorney general can take on Trump.
“The No. 1 thing the next attorney general or any of us is going to do to hold Donald Trump accountable is keep Bob Mueller on the job,” Maloney said.
While the New York attorney general may have jurisdiction over some activities related to the Mueller investigation, the state can’t bring charges against anyone who has been pardoned by Trump. As part of his efforts to work with Mueller, Schneiderman has backed a proposed law in New York that would close this so-called “double jeopardy” loophole. This is another effort that the Democrats running to replace Schneiderman hope to continue.
James has gone a step further than her rivals and promised she could get the law passed soon after she takes office by virtue of her relationships and experience in the state capital. “I am confident that when Letitia James becomes attorney general, that bill will be passed in the first 100 days,” she said at the forum.
James told Yahoo News said she has already discussed the bill with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the speaker of the state Assembly. She explained that there are some Democrats who are against the legislation in its current form and said she is eager to work with them on a “compromise bill.”
“There have been some individuals who have concerns — particularly, believe it or not, coming from the black, Puerto Rican and Asian caucus, who believe it’s too broad and they want to carve out categories,” said James.
Both James and Teachout have also said they are also prepared to take over if Trump moves to stop Mueller entirely.
“You could imagine an effort to fire Mueller. You could imagine an effort to strip the staff,” Teachout told Yahoo. “You don’t know with Trump, but nothing is off the table.”
Giuliani, the president’s attorney, dismissed the idea Trump would move to stop Mueller.
“He’s not going to step in. If he was going to step in, he would have done it a long time ago,” Giuliani said. “The Mueller probe hopefully will end, because they haven’t found any evidence he did anything wrong. You can only investigate an innocent man so long.”
Giuliani also said he’s “totally unconcerned” about the possibility of New York’s attorney general taking up the Mueller investigation.
“They’d have the same problem that Mueller has. They’d have to figure out what the heck [Trump] did wrong,” Giuliani said. “He didn’t do anything wrong.”
For now, James has emerged as the frontrunner in the race, with endorsements from a wide array of local unions and state officials.
While James and her allies tout her Albany connections as an asset, her rivals have painted her as overly tied to the state establishment. In recent years, a slew of local officials in New York have faced corruption charges, including top aides to the governor. At the forum last week, Maloney argued the state’s voters should back someone “who’s independent” to take on the political misconduct in the state.
In a scathing interview with the local publication City and State published on Thursday, Maloney attacked James as “propped up by insiders and the political machine.”
But Maloney is also under fire in the race because, while putting himself forward as a potential rival to Trump, while in Congress he voted with the president 35 percent of the time — more than any other New York Democrat in Congress, according to FiveThirtyEight. In his interview with City and State, Maloney called the survey a “bulls*** metric.”
Maloney and James are “people who in different ways have deep entanglements w the political establishment,” says Teachout, who first came to political prominence when she mounted a shockingly successful primary challenge to Cuomo in 2014. In this race, she has tried to frame herself as part of the progressive insurgency running against incumbent Democratic interests.
On the campaign trail, James has pointed out that as public advocate, she has sued both Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. At the forum on Thursday, James also said she wants to “tear down” a state ethics commission that’s widely seen as closely tied to Cuomo, and “rebuild it as an independent entity” with “no ties to the governor.”
All four Democratic candidates are cutting pioneering paths. If elected, James or Eve would be the first African-American woman elected to statewide office in New York. Maloney would be the state’s first openly gay official. And Teachout has been mounting her campaign while pregnant.
A Siena College poll released last Tuesday showed James with 25 percent of the vote, followed by Maloney with 16 percent and Teachout with 13 percent. The fourth Democrat, Eve, had the support of just four percent of primary voters in the poll. The winner of the primary will face Manhattan attorney Keith Wofford, who is the Republican nominee and did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
In the meantime, the race is on Trump’s mind, and he has asked allies in New York for opinions about the candidates, according to a source who has recently spoken to the president.
For his part, Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, said none of the Democratic attorney general candidates are inspiring.
“None of them impress me as a lawyer I would ever have represent me or hire,” Giuliani said. “They hardly have distinguished legal backgrounds.”