ALBANY, N.Y. — Grilling former President Donald Trump under oath is a dream for much of the Democratic Party’s base. New York Attorney General Tish James made it happen.
Trump’s appearance Monday as a key witness in the civil fraud case her office is bringing against him and his business empire is the latest touchstone moment for James, a Democrat first elected in 2018.
“It’s probably the most visible case ever brought by the state attorney general’s office,” former state Attorney General Bob Abrams, a Democrat, proclaimed.
For her allies, it’s an episode that underscores her progressive credentials in a heavily Democratic state where Trump remains deeply unpopular with most voters.
It’s also a moment that comes with hazards for James, reelected to the attorney general’s office in 2022 following a short-lived run for governor, with the entire country watching closely.
“Taking on Trump as a Black woman, even in New York, is no easy task,” said Jasmine Gripper, the co-director of the progressive Working Families Party, a longtime ally for James. “His folks are trolling her like crazy. You have to have enough. You can’t come at this lightly, because you don’t want him to get away.”
James’ office has accused Trump of pumping up the value of his real estate assets in claims that go beyond the usual braggadocio and into the realm of the fraudulent.
And she didn’t mince words outside the Manhattan courthouse Monday ahead of Trump taking the stand.
“Mr. Trump has repeatedly and consistently misrepresented and inflated the value of his assets,” James told reporters.
James said she expected Trump to respond with “name calling and taunts and race baiting and call this a witch hunt.”
He surely did, continuing to make James a target of his ire in his myriad fights with the justice system. Trump’s campaign in response blasted out a statement knocking James as a “Soros-funded Democrat” who has made no secret of her desire to bring a case against him when she first ran for the office.
The former president’s campaign criticized James as a “Democratic activist” who has been “soft on crime.”
Trump himself told reporters before testifying that James is “a racist attorney general.” And he carried his vitriol to the stand: James, he said in court, “should be ashamed of herself” for bringing the case. Judge Arthur Engoron has already ruled Trump and his co-defendants were liable for fraud.
“I think she’s a political hack, and I think she used this case to try and become governor, and she successfully used it to become attorney general,” he told the packed courtroom.
James has attended the Trump trial virtually or in person since it started six weeks ago, a decision that is unusual for a law-enforcement official who oversees an office of hundreds of attorneys handling dozens of cases at a time.
Trump has seized on her attendance, including in his testimony Monday, saying while complaining about the trial that, “You have an attorney general sitting here all day long, watching every little move.”
Trump is facing a range of legal headaches as he is also mounting his third campaign for the White House, including more in New York. He faces criminal charges from Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s office related to alleged hush money paid to porn star Stormy Daniels.
Beyond the polarizing politics of Trump, Democrats and James’ allies point to the Trump fraud case being among a constellation of issues she has tackled over the last five years that can appeal to a broad cross section of voters, including those in rural and suburban areas.
James has used her office’s considerable power to bring cases against drug makers responsible for manufacturing highly addictive opioids as well as a suit against the National Rifle Association, challenging the gun lobby’s status as a non-profit entity.
All of those issues hit key constituencies in New York, Democratic consultant Bill Neidhardt said.
“It’s been one hell of an autumn for Tish James — holding not just the Trump family accountable, but all his little minions as well will certainly strengthen her standing nationally among Democrats everywhere,” he said.
The attorney general’s post in New York has long been viewed as a stepping stone to the governor’s office, attracting ambitious Democrats like Eliot Spitzer, Andrew Cuomo and Eric Schneiderman. James briefly ran for governor in 2021, but ultimately scuttled her campaign after failing to gain traction in polls and with donors.
James, 65, has had a long career in New York politics, one that has taken her from a seat on the New York City Council to the city’s Public Advocate’s Office. Despite the brief gubernatorial campaign, she’s expressed little interest in running again for the job — signaling the attorney general’s job may be the capstone to her career in elected office.
Her bid for governor came weeks after her office issued a bombshell report detailing allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate conduct by Cuomo. He resigned from the governor’s office in the wake of the investigation.
Cuomo, a Democrat, has since knocked James for running for his old job soon after the release of the report and his resignation — suggesting the investigation she oversaw was politically convenient for her.
“When she turns around and runs for governor a few weeks later, that rings an alarm bell,” Cuomo said in an interview last month. “It’s too coincidental.”
Past Republican targets of James’ office, too, are convinced she has used her office to bring politically motivated cases.
And all of that was laid bare Monday in the climax of his court case with James.
“She’s 100 percent weaponized her office,” said Republican Rensselaer County Executive Steve McLaughlin, who was accused by James’ office of stealing campaign funds and later acquitted. “She’s targeting political opponents.”
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