Donald Trump’s apparent willingness to flout campaign finance rules and laws against self-dealing was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold in 2016. More than two years have passed and — as was the case when he casually bragged about assaulting women, or evaded paying millions of dollars in taxes — the president has yet to face any consequences.
In a crowded Manhattan Supreme Court room Thursday morning, reporters waited to see if Trump would finally be brought to heel for using his charity as “a shell corporation that functioned as a checkbook” for his business, in the words of New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood. The Trump Foundation case is one of a series of high-profile lawsuits that Underwood, the former solicitor general, has taken on since taking over as NY AG five and half months ago following the resignation of Eric Schneiderman in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse by multiple women.
On Wednesday, lawyers from Underwood’s office filed a lawsuit against ExxonMobil that accuses the corporation of defrauding its investors by minimizing the long-term threat global warming poses to its business. Last week, representatives from her office met with Michael Cohen, the president’s former lawyer-fixer, behind closed doors.
The reason Cohen is cooperating with the NY AG’s office and, reportedly, Special Counsel Robert Mueller, is largely because of Underwood. Prosecutors were only able to persuade Cohen to “flip” after Underwood created a case against his business associate Evgeny “Taxi King” Freidman. Freidman struck a deal the same day Underwood — who worked on the case in her former role — became New York’s AG in a hastily arranged swearing-in at her office roughly 24 hours after Schneiderman stepped down. She is the first woman to hold the job.
“Becoming the first woman is important symbolically and because it breaks a barrier, but it is not a big part of the actual experience of doing the job,” Underwood tells Rolling Stone. (It’s also a bit of old hat to her: n 1998, she became the first female solicitor general of the United States.)
In this case, though, the symbolism was especially potent given the circumstances under which Schneiderman was forced resign. “I did hear some women say, first of all, they were glad it was me because they knew me [as solicitor general] — and that they were glad it was a woman,” Underwood says.
In her short tenure as AG, Underwood has already had an outsize impact — leading coalitions of state attorneys general on cases (or filing amicus briefs) against Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency, Trump’s Office of Refugee Resettlement and more. It’s part of the reason she chose not to run for reelection to the post this November, although she definitely considered it.
“The simple answer [for not running] is that I thought the most important thing I could do in the moment, in May, was to devote all of my effort to running the office rather than running for office,” Underwood says. “And the best way to keep everything going, to keep the good work going, to make it clear that New York was going to continue to be at the forefront of the coalition of states that is bringing quite a lot of actions in immigration, in the environment, in health insurance, in reproductive rights, labor — to keep all of that was going to be more than a full time job.”
Without Underwood on the ballot, it turned out to be a bruising three-way race, pitting Fordham law professor (and former gubernatorial aspirant) Zephyr Teachout against New York City Public Advocate Letitia James and Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY). James, who had the backing of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, triumphed in the Democratic primary and is expected to win easily next month. If and when James is sworn in in January, Underwood expects to return to her old position as solicitor general.
Until then, she’s steaming ahead with the work at hand.
“It is — particularly in this moment in history — very satisfying to be advancing and enforcing the rule of law,” Underwood says. “I don’t want to say that the Trump Foundation case is the most important case we’re working on right now — it’s one of many — but it’s a particularly good example of the proposition that nobody is above the law.
“We have, in this case, a body of law that regulates charities, and it regulates the charities that are run by people you’ve never heard of, and it also governs charities that are run by the president of the United States and his family. It’s been very important to me to bring the case and to also to say proudly and confidently that this is a case that would have been brought no matter who was the head of this foundation.”
Underwood is demanding that the Trump Foundation dissolve, but not before paying $2.8 million in fines. She’s also asking a judge to ban the president from serving on the board of any New York charity for at least 10 years, and banning his children from the same for one year each.
On Thursday, the judge in the case did not rule on a Trump Foundation motion to dismiss. Judge Salliann Scarpulla indicated she would await a decision, expected from the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division soon, on whether the president can be sued for non-official acts.