As President Donald Trump faces down special counsel Robert Mueller, he could soon be facing new legal challenges from New York, where Democrats vying for the role as the state’s top prosecutor have all made hostility to the president a central part of their campaigns.
The latest polling shows the Democratic primary, which will be held Thursday, is a tossup between Rep. Sean Maloney, New York City public advocate Letitia James and Zephyr Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University who has written a book about political corruption. A fourth candidate, Leecia Eve, a former aide to Hillary Clinton, is trailing.
The state has a track record of taking on the Trump administration. The state sued Trump University in 2013 for defrauding students, part of a legal case which led to a $25 million settlement. In June, Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed a suit against the president’s charitable foundation alleging a “pattern of persistent illegal conduct.”
The candidates running to replace Underwood could take the legal challenge a step further. The attorney general position in New York presents a unique opportunity to go after the president because the deeply blue state is where he built his business empire.
New York is also where Trump headquartered his campaign, and the site of a number of events that have come under the scrutiny of federal prosecutors. Mueller is looking at a June 2016 meeting between a number of Trump’s top campaign advisors and a Kremlin-linked attorney that occurred in Trump Tower, for instance.
Last month, Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty in federal court in New York to a number of violations related to the 2016 campaign.
The president’s attorney, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, has said that Trump has nothing to worry about because he has done nothing wrong. The White House did not respond to a request for comment from CNBC.
“Like we are seeing with the recent Cohen plea, there is a profound overlap between his campaign, his foundation, and his businesses, the beating heart of which is here in New York,” Teachout said Wednesday at an event in front of Trump Tower in Manhattan. “So yeah, New York has an incredible opportunity to really investigate — stop — the central illegality of the Trump administration.”
Asked if Trump should fear her, Teachout responded: “Yes.”
Teachout, the only candidate who agreed to comment for this article, said that she would bring a lawsuit against Trump on “day one” of her term over alleged Emoluments Clause violations. James has also said she would investigate whether the president has violated the Emoluments Clause.
The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution bars the president from receiving payments or gifts from foreign officials without the consent of Congress. Trump has come under scrutiny under the law because of his businesses’ financial dealings with foreign governments.
Teachout, an expert in the law as an academic, was one of the lawyers on an Emoluments Clause lawsuit brought against the president by the watchdog group Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington.
That case was dismissed for lack of standing, but a similar case brought by the attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia was allowed to proceed last July, dealing a blow to the president.
James, who accused Teachout and Maloney of following the “Trump playbook,” for delaying the release of their tax returns, has said she is “closing in” on Trump.
“The president of the United States has to worry about three things: Mueller, Cohen, and Tish James,” James told Yahoo News for an article published last month.
Thanks to a law on the books in New York, Trump could avoid facing charges in New York through his pardon power. While Trump can only issue pardons against federal crimes, New York has a double jeopardy law that would prevent the state from bringing charges against the president or his associates for any crimes that the president has pardoned at the federal level.
Teachout and James have both come out in favor of legislation that would change that.
“New York’s double jeopardy law should be amended to make sure that ANY crime pardoned in a self-serving pardon can be prosecuted at the state level,” Teachout wrote in an August post on Twitter.
At a candidates’ forum in Westchester County last month, James said that she would pass a bill that would change the double jeopardy law in her first 100 days in office.
Eric Schneiderman, the former attorney general who resigned in May after four women accused him of physical abuse, had been working on a similar proposal. Schneiderman had been a noted Trump foe while in office, filing more than 100 legal or administrative actions against the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress.
Some have criticized the candidates’ focus on Trump, noting that New York has enough local problems to deal with.
“New York state has so many disenfranchised citizens, and for these candidates to make anti-Trump rhetoric the number one priority fails to understand the importance of the AG job for average New York citizen,” Bill Samuels, a Democratic fundraiser and activist, said in an email.
Teachout pushed back against the criticism on Wednesday, saying that many of the problems that New Yorkers face are “deeply connected” to Trump, and the political power of New York City real estate.
“New York City real estate gives about a tenth of the political money in New York politics all around the state,” Teachout said. “We are talking about tenant harassment, tax fraud, money laundering. Donald Trump comes out of New York city real estate.”
— CNBC’s Emma Newburger contributed to this report.