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Judge Holds Trump in Contempt Over Documents in New York A.G.’s Inquiry

Donald J. Trump was ordered to fully comply with the attorney general’s subpoena and will be fined $10,000 a day until he does, though the ruling may be short-lived.
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Judge Holds Trump in Contempt Over Documents in New York A.G.’s Inquiry

Donald J. Trump was ordered to fully comply with the attorney general’s subpoena and will be fined $10,000 a day until he does, though the ruling may be short-lived.

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A lawyer for former President Donald J. Trump had argued that he did not possess any documents relevant to the attorney general’s investigation.
A lawyer for former President Donald J. Trump had argued that he did not possess any documents relevant to the attorney general’s investigation.Credit...Veasey Conway for The New York Times

Jonah E. Bromwich, Ben Protess and

Published April 25, 2022Updated April 26, 2022, 5:34 p.m. ET

A New York state judge on Monday held Donald J. Trump in contempt of court for failing to comply with a subpoena from the state attorney general’s office, an extraordinary rebuke of the former president that came as that office suggested it might soon file a long-threatened lawsuit against him.

The judge, Arthur F. Engoron, ordered Mr. Trump to fully respond to the subpoena from the attorney general, Letitia James — who sought records from the former president about his family business — and assessed a fine of $10,000 per day until he satisfied the court’s requirements.

“Mr. Trump: I know you take your business seriously, and I take mine seriously,” said Justice Engoron, before he held Mr. Trump in contempt and banged his gavel.

The contempt order amounted to a judicial condemnation of Mr. Trump’s signature tactic — stonewalling litigation and law enforcement investigations that he has derided as politically motivated, sometimes for years.

That practice has helped him emerge from several inquiries largely unscathed, stymieing a legion of prosecutors, regulators and congressional investigators seeking to hold him to account.

But Ms. James has adopted her own aggressive legal strategy that undercut his long-effective approach, and she now appears poised to take the next step.

After more than three years, Ms. James’s office said on Monday that it was nearing the culmination of its inquiry. During the hearing, a lawyer for Ms. James indicated that her office was preparing to file an action against Mr. Trump in the near future. That action is likely to be a lawsuit.

Ms. James, a Democrat, has previously said that the Trump Organization engaged in “fraudulent or misleading” practices but that she needed to collect additional records and testimony before deciding whether to sue Mr. Trump or his company.

After Ms. James subpoenaed Mr. Trump in December, lawyers for the former president argued that they conducted a thorough search for the records being sought by her investigators and found no new documents to provide. But Justice Engoron said Monday that the lawyers had not provided sufficient detail about how they had conducted the search.

The contempt order could be short-lived. If Alina Habba, one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, files a sworn statement detailing every step that was taken to locate potential documents, the judge might be satisfied, lawyers close to the case said. Ms. Habba said after the hearing ended that she intended to file such a statement.

Ms. Habba also said she intended to appeal the ruling.

“All documents responsive to the subpoena were produced to the attorney general months ago,” Ms. Habba said. “This does not even come close to meeting the standard on a motion for contempt.”

Mr. Trump has denied wrongdoing and lashed out at Ms. James, who is Black, calling her racist and accusing her of carrying out a politically motivated witch hunt against him.

At the hearing, Justice Engoron objected to an earlier statement from Mr. Trump’s lawyers regarding their efforts to search for documents, calling it “woefully insufficient” and “boilerplate.”

It failed, he said, to outline “what, who, where, when and how any search was conducted.”

The ruling and Justice Engoron’s comments represent a significant victory for Ms. James, whose office is conducting a civil investigation into whether Mr. Trump falsely inflated the value of his assets in annual financial statements.

In a statement, Ms. James applauded the contempt order, saying, “For years, Donald Trump has tried to evade the law and stop our lawful investigation into him and his company’s financial dealings.”

She added, “Today’s ruling makes clear: No one is above the law.”

Although Ms. James does not have the authority to file criminal charges, her civil inquiry is running parallel to a criminal investigation led by the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who is examining some of the same conduct.

Ms. James’s office is participating in that separate investigation, which had appeared to be nearing an indictment of Mr. Trump earlier this year, before Mr. Bragg raised concerns about prosecutors’ ability to prove their case. Mr. Bragg, also a Democrat, inherited the inquiry from his predecessor after taking office on Jan. 1.

The ruling on Monday is a blow for Mr. Trump as he continues to battle the attorney general’s investigation. Ms. James has sought to question the former president and two of his children, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr., as part of her inquiry, and lawyers for the Trump family are seeking to block the questioning. (In the fall of 2020, Ms. James questioned another of Mr. Trump’s children, Eric Trump.)

Understand the New York A.G.’s Trump Inquiry
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An empire under scrutiny. Letitia James, the New York State attorney general, is currently conducting a civil investigation into former President Donald J. Trump’s business practices. Here’s what to know:

The origins of the inquiry. The investigation started after Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, testified to Congress that Mr. Trump and his employees had manipulated his net worth to suit his interests.

The findings. Ms. James detailed in a recent filing what she said was a pattern by the Trump Organization to inflate the value of the company’s properties in documents filed with lenders, insurers and the Internal Revenue Service.

Mr. Trump’s lawsuit. In December, Mr. Trump sued Ms. James, seeking to halt the inquiry. The suit argues that the attorney general’s involvement in the inquiry is politically motivated.

Pushing back. Lawyers for the Trump family had sought to prevent Ms. James from obtaining documents as part of the inquiry and interviewing Mr. Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump under oath. But a State Supreme Court judge in Manhattan has rejected the efforts.

Contempt ruling. In an extraordinary rebuke of the former president, a judge held Mr. Trump in contempt of court for failing to turn over documents to Ms. James. Mr. Trump was ordered to comply with a subpoena seeking records and be fined $10,000 per day until he does so.

Justice Engoron also ruled in favor of Ms. James as she sought additional documents from Cushman & Wakefield, a real estate firm that valued several of Mr. Trump’s properties while also serving as a broker for his company.

And in March, Justice Engoron ruled in favor of Ms. James, ordering Mr. Trump and his children to be deposed. The Trumps have appealed that ruling.

Justice Engoron, a Democrat, was first elected to the New York City Civil Court in 2003. He was elevated to serve as an acting State Supreme Court Justice in 2013 and elected to the State Supreme Court bench in 2015. In New York, the general trial-level court is called the Supreme Court; the state’s highest court is known as the Court of Appeals.

Earlier this month, lawyers from Ms. James’s office said that Mr. Trump had declined to turn over documents in response to eight separate requests and called for him to be held in contempt and assessed a daily fine of $10,000 as long as he continued not to cooperate.

Mr. Trump’s lawyers had said the requests were “grossly overbroad” and did not “adequately” describe the requested materials. And Ms. Habba said in a document filed with the court last week that Mr. Trump did not have any of the documents that Ms. James had requested, and that any such documents, if they existed, would be in the possession of the Trump Organization.

She added that Ms. James had filed the motion for contempt without warning, “seemingly in an effort to turn this matter into a public spectacle.”

But lawyers for Ms. James’s office said in court on Monday that, over the course of the investigation, they had received only 10 documents from Mr. Trump’s files and that Mr. Trump himself had not turned over any documents in response to the December subpoena addressed to him personally.

Furthermore, one of Ms. James’s lawyers said, Ms. Habba had not provided an adequate description of the search for relevant documents. The lawyer, Andrew Amer, mentioned a number of relevant files known to his office, including those kept in storage closets and file cabinets at Trump Tower.

Kevin Wallace, another lawyer with Ms. James’s office, called for those locations to be searched by a third-party organization, HaystackID, which has overseen the Trump Organization’s production of documents in the case.

Ms. Habba repeated in court that the Trump Organization had searched the locations in question. But Justice Engoron said that explanation was insufficient coming from Ms. Habba in court alone; she would have to attest to the fact the search took place and describe it in the sworn statement to be filed with the court.

After Justice Engoron ordered that Mr. Trump be held in contempt, a lawyer for Mr. Trump’s team said that Haystack would do a review of Mr. Trump’s physical files.

In a separate case in federal court, Mr. Trump sued Ms. James, seeking to halt her civil inquiry and have her removed from the Manhattan district attorney’s criminal investigation. That case is ongoing.

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