NEW YORK — The New York attorney general can question Donald Trump and two of his adult children under oath as part of a civil inquiry into his business practices, a judge ruled Thursday — the latest in a string of legal defeats Trump has suffered since leaving office.
The ruling came three days after a court filing by the attorney general, Letitia James, in the same matter revealed that Trump’s longtime accounting firm had cut ties with him and had essentially retracted a decade’s worth of his financial statements.
James’ inquiry, and a parallel criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, are both examining whether Trump used those statements to improperly inflate the value of his assets so he could receive favorable loans.
Lawyers for the Trump family had sought to prohibit James, a Democrat, from interviewing Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump. They had argued that James was politically biased against Donald Trump and was inappropriately using her civil inquiry to aid the district attorney’s criminal investigation, which she is also participating in.
But in a written ruling, the judge, Arthur F. Engoron, dismissed that point, saying it “completely misses the mark.” After dismantling several other arguments, he concluded that James had uncovered “copious evidence of possible financial fraud” — evidence that entitled her to question the Trump family.
“She has the clear right to do so,” he wrote, ordering that Trump and his son and daughter face questioning in the next three weeks.
Thursday’s ruling was the latest in a notable legal losing streak for Trump, which has included several rebukes from the U.S. Supreme Court. Since he left office, Trump has lost the battle to withhold his financial records from the Manhattan district attorney, to block a congressional committee from inspecting his White House records as part of an investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and to appeal the results of the 2020 presidential election.
For Trump, the fallout from some of these decisions could be significant, exposing him to civil and criminal liability as he has come under investigation from at least three prosecutors, in addition to James. Not only are authorities in New York scrutinizing Trump; the district attorney in Atlanta has convened a grand jury as part of an investigation into the former president’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election results in Georgia.
“Today, justice prevailed,” James said in a statement, adding, “No one is above the law.”
In a rambling statement released Thursday evening, Trump blasted the decision and attacked James, Hillary Clinton and the media. “It is a continuation of the greatest witch hunt in history,” he said, adding: “I can’t get a fair hearing in New York because of the hatred of me by judges and the judiciary.” He has previously denied all wrongdoing.
“The entire system is corrupt,” a spokesperson for the Trump Organization said.
The ruling does not mean that James will automatically receive the answers she is seeking. Trump and his children can invoke their constitutional right not to incriminate themselves, as Trump’s other adult son, Eric Trump, did when questioned by the attorney general’s office in October 2020. The Trump family also intends to appeal the decision, according to the spokesperson.
The judge’s decision followed a fiery virtual hearing in state Supreme Court on Thursday, during which lawyers for Trump and the attorney general made their cases. Several times, Trump’s lawyers became so heated that Engoron and his law clerk had to call for a timeout — raising their hands in the shape of a T, a gesture more often seen at a sporting event than in a courtroom.
Although James signaled in court papers that she had amassed significant evidence against Trump’s family business — she has accused the Trump Organization of engaging in “fraudulent or misleading” practices — she has said that she needs to question Trump and his children before determining her next move.
Trump and his children sought to block the questioning, and James responded in a court filing last month, arguing that there was “heightened need” for testimony from the three family members. She said that by questioning them, she would be able to determine who was responsible for the misstatements and omissions that the company made in its financial documents.
Because James’ inquiry is civil, she cannot bring criminal charges. If she finds evidence of wrongdoing, she can file a lawsuit against Trump, his company or others involved in the business. In last month’s filing, James said that her lawyers had not yet reached a final decision on a lawsuit but argued that “the grounds for conducting the investigation are beyond reproach.”
On Monday, James released a letter in which Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars USA, declared that Trump’s financial statements from 2011-20 were not reliable. Trump provided those financial statements, which include various disclaimers noting that they are unaudited, to his lenders and at least one insurance company. They are central to the civil and criminal inquiries into Trump.
Mazars said in the letter that it had not “as a whole” found material discrepancies between the information the Trump Organization provided and the actual value of Trump’s assets, something that Trump’s lawyers asserted had effectively rendered the civil and criminal investigations “moot.”
But Engoron scoffed at that argument, likening it to dystopian slogans like “War Is Peace” in George Orwell’s “1984”; to Lewis Carroll’s inverse meanings in “Through the Looking Glass”; and to former senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts.”
Suggesting that the “Mazars red-flag warning” about the financial statements made the investigations moot, the judge wrote, “is as audacious as it is preposterous.”
The criminal investigation, which is similarly focused on whether Trump used those statements to mislead his lenders about the value of his hotels, golf clubs and other properties, is being led by Alvin Bragg, the Manhattan district attorney who inherited it when he took office in January.
Last year, under Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., Manhattan prosecutors separately indicted the Trump Organization and its longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, accusing them of conducting a yearslong scheme to evade taxes by compensating employees with special off-the-books benefits such as apartment rentals and luxury cars.
Trump’s lawyers said that the criminal inquiry, which also involves investigators from James’ office, would improperly benefit if the attorney general’s office questioned Trump and his children in the civil inquiry.
They argued that James would be able to obtain information that would be valuable to the criminal investigation without having to provide the family members the immunity that they would receive were they to testify in front of a criminal grand jury. (Under New York law, witnesses who appear before the grand jury receive immunity from prosecution on the subject of their testimony.)
After maintaining a neutral posture during the hearing, Engoron was blunt in his ruling, which also directed the former president to provide the attorney general with documents she sought in her subpoena.
Addressing the argument that James was improperly using the civil investigation to bolster the criminal inquiry, he noted that the Trumps had not been asked to appear before a grand jury.
He was also unconvinced by the argument that James was politically biased, which Trump’s lawyers advanced by citing statements that the attorney general had made while campaigning, including her promise to “use every area of the law to investigate” Trump, who was then still in office.
Engoron said that James had the right to say whatever she liked about Trump while running for office and that there was a clear basis for her investigation.