Former President Donald Trump and two of his adult children will be required to testify under oath in a civil investigation by the New York attorney-general into their family business, a judge ruled on Thursday.
The decision from Judge Arthur Engoron in New York on Thursday came after a court hearing in which lawyers for Trump and two of his children, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, argued that their clients were unfairly targeted because of the former president’s political standing.
They also claimed that any information gathered in the civil investigation could be used against the Trumps in a related criminal probe being led by the Manhattan district attorney.
Letitia James, New York attorney general, began her investigation in 2019 after Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, told Congress that the Trump Organization routinely inflated the value of its real estate assets in order to secure financing and other benefits while understating them for other purposes.
In a January court filing, she said her office had uncovered “significant evidence” of fraud committed by the family-owned business. James also noted that another Trump child, Eric Trump, had invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination more than 500 times when questioned by her office.
The Trumps must submit to questioning within 21 days, according to the judge’s ruling. He also gave the former president 14 days to comply with a request for handwritten notes and other business records the attorney general claims Trump has been holding back.
“No one will be allowed to stand in the way of the pursuit of justice, no matter how powerful they are,” James said in a statement after the decision. “No one is above the law.”
The Trump Organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It has repeatedly dismissed James’ investigation as a politically motivated witch hunt led by a Democratic politician.
During Thursday’s hearing, lawyers for the Trumps sought to prove that by citing dozens of comments from James’s election campaign, including one instance when she warned: “Oh, we’re definitely going to sue him. We’re gonna be a real pain in his ass. “
They also argued that the attorney-general’s subpoena was, effectively, a ploy to extract information that could then be used against the family by criminal investigators. Under New York law, witnesses who testify before a grand jury are generally granted immunity – something the Trumps claimed they should be entitled to. At a minimum, they asked the court to delay the civil investigation until any criminal case was resolved.
But, in a written opinion, the judge concluded that the evidence already turned up by James was sufficient to undercut the notion that her probe was based on “personal animus, not facts and law”. If anything, Engoron wrote, it would have been “a blatant dereliction of duty” not to investigate.
Engoron also took a withering view of the Trump Organization’s defiant response earlier this week after its longtime accountant, Mazars, said it was withdrawing 10 years of financial statements it had produced for the company because they could not be relied upon.
A Trump spokesperson said Mazars’ letter confirmed that “its work was performed in accordance with all applicable accounting standards” and found no material discrepancies. As such, it “effectively renders the investigations by the DA and the AG moot”.
The judge likened that claim to the doublespeak portrayed by author George Orwell in his dystopian novel, 1984: “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength.”
“To proclaim that the Mazars’ red-flag warning that the Trump financial statements are unreliable suddenly renders the [attorney-general’s] longstanding investigation moot is as audacious as it is preposterous, ”Engoron wrote.