Donald Trump and two of his adult children must sit for questioning under oath as part of the New York attorney general’s civil investigation into their business practices, a state appeals court ruled Thursday.
Trump’s lawyers had argued that the inquiry by the state attorney general, Letitia James, was politically motivated and that she should not be permitted to question him or his children, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump. The lawyers also claimed that the attorney general could not force Donald Trump to face questioning in her civil investigation because he was also the subject of a criminal inquiry into some of the same business practices.
But the court found that the Trumps had not shown they were being treated differently from other investigative targets and argued that “the existence of a criminal investigation does not preclude civil discovery of related facts.”
The decision represented the latest in a string of legal setbacks for Trump, who was also recently held in contempt of court for failing to fully comply with a subpoena from James seeking documents. And the rebuke will likely embolden James at a crucial moment in her investigation, as she weighs whether to sue Trump and the Trump Organization, his family real estate business.
“Once again, the courts have ruled that Donald Trump must comply with our lawful investigation into his financial dealings,” James said in a statement. “We will continue to follow the facts of this case and ensure that no one can evade the law.”
But the ruling does not mean that the Trumps will necessarily face questioning. The family’s lawyers could appeal to New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, although it is not clear whether that court would agree to hear the case.
Alan S. Futerfas, the lawyer who argued the case for the Trumps, said they were considering the court’s decision.
The unanimous ruling from a four-judge panel of the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, 1st Department, upheld a decision from a lower court granting James permission to question Trump and his children.
Another of Trump’s adult children, Eric Trump, was questioned by the attorney general’s lawyers in October 2020. During his testimony, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against incriminating himself in response to more than 500 questions, a court filing said.
Donald Trump and his other children could do the same. But declining to answer questions could harm them in James’s civil inquiry. Whereas in a criminal case, jurors are barred from inferring anything from a defendant’s refusal to testify, the same is not true in a civil inquiry, where the Trumps’ silence could be used against them.
James’s office is in the final stages of its investigation, which began more than three years ago and has focused on whether Trump improperly inflated the value of his properties and other assets. Because her inquiry is civil, James cannot file criminal charges, but she can file a lawsuit. Last month, a lawyer for her office said that James was preparing to file an “action” against Trump in the near future.
In a filing earlier this year, James’ office said that the Trump Organization engaged in “fraudulent or misleading” practices. But her lawyers added that they needed to collect additional records and testimony before they could make a decision about whether to file a lawsuit.
As James’s investigation ramps up, Trump also faces a criminal investigation into whether he falsely inflated the value of his properties. But while that investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is continuing, prosecutors stopped presenting evidence about Trump to a grand jury earlier this year.
The criminal investigation had been heading toward charges before the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg, developed concerns about proving the case.
In an interview last month, Bragg said his office was monitoring James’s investigation for potential new leads.
In recent court filings, James has outlined the contours of a potential lawsuit against Trump or his company. One of her filings revealed that Trump’s longtime accounting firm had cut ties with him and essentially retracted nearly a decade’s worth of his annual financial statements.
And throughout the year, her office has worked to obtain testimony and documents from Trump. Last month, Justice Arthur F. Engoron of the New York Supreme Court, who first permitted James to question the Trump family, also held the former president in contempt after his lawyers failed to explain their search process for documents relevant to the investigation that they claimed they were unable to find. The contempt order was lifted earlier this month, but only after Trump paid a $110,000 fine.