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When Trump leaves office, New York prosecutors are waiting. Here are his looming legal fights

Joseph Spector
New York State Team

ALBANY - When Whoopi Goldberg welcomed New York Attorney General Letitia James on ABC's The View last month, she introduced James as the person who "strikes fear in the heart of you know who right now."

The who is outgoing President Donald Trump. And the reason is James is quietly still investigating the Republican president and his business dealings in New York.

And the case, as well as one ongoing by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, is expected to intensify when Trump begrudgingly leaves the White House on Jan. 20.

The cases are so front of mind that James even suggested on The View that she suspected Trump might resign before he leaves office in order to get a pardon from Vice President Mike Pence — something Trump has shown no signs of doing despite pleas from Democrats and some Republican and his impeachment in the House on Wednesday.

"He can preemptively pardon individuals, and the vast majority of legal scholars have indicated that he cannot pardon himself," James told the show hosts Dec. 8.

"What he could do is step down and allow the vice president, Vice President Pence, to pardon him."

Trump was impeached by the U.S. House for the second time on Wednesday, but all the political and legal fights in Washington would have no bearing on what happens in New York.

Even if Trump were to pardon himself or others, that would not apply to any state case.

To make sure of its discretion, in fact, New York lawmakers last year went so far as to pass a law that allow for state prosecution even if Trump, his associates and family receive a federal pardon

"The fact that Mr. Trump is the president of the United States really has no bearing on our investigation," James, a Democrat, said. "In fact, the election has no bearing on our investigation. We will continue our investigation whether he is president or not."

What could await Trump in New York

New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks to reporters on Monday, Feb. 11, 2019, in her Albany office.

James' civil investigation was triggered after Michael Cohen, Trump's former adviser and attorney at the New York-based Trump Foundation, testified before Congress in February 2019 and accused the president of inflating his assets for personal gain.

“It was my experience that Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes, such as trying to be listed among the wealthiest people in Forbes, and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes,” he said in testimony before the House Oversight Committee.

The probe is focused on whether Trump improperly inflated the value of four properties — including his Seven Springs estate in northern Westchester County — to get tax breaks and better terms on bank loans.

And after a court fight, James' successfully forced the president's son, Eric Trump, to sit for a deposition last fall.

"In addition to that," James contends, "they deflated those same assets for the purposes for evading or avoiding tax liability. Our investigation is ongoing. It is a civil investigation in nature."

But James said the case could move to criminal prosecution depending on her findings.

"My investigation is civil in nature," she said. "However, in the event that we uncover any conduct or activities, which would suggest criminal activities, then that would change, obviously, our investigation. It would change the posture of our investigation."

Trump has denied any wrongdoing, and the case appears to be front of mind for the native New Yorker.

President Donald Trump arrives on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021 in Washington. The president was returning from Texas.

On Dec. 2, he gave a 46-minute speech deriding the election results for fraud and also railing against the legal cases building in New York.

"I hear that these same people that failed to get me in Washington have sent every piece of information to New York, so that they can try to get me there," Trump said.

"It's all been gone over, over and over again."

He has regularly blasted James for her focus on him, saying she campaigned on a pledge to go after him when she ran for office in 2018.

"All it's been is a big investigation in Washington and New York and any place else that can investigate because that's what they want to do," Trump continued.

"They want to take not me, but us down. Then we can never let them do that. Everything has been looked at."

More:Donald Trump's taxes already at issue in at least two NY investigations

More:Donald Trump, Seven Springs and his $21 million tax deduction draw scrutiny

Twin investigations into Trump in New York

FILE - In this Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, file photo, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. leaves court, in New York. Vance, the New York prosecutor who has been fighting to get President Donald Trump’s tax returns, got Deutsche Bank in 2019 to turn over other Trump financial records. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

While James' investigation is currently civil in nature, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office investigation is a criminal case, focusing on whether Trump or the Trump Organization committed any financial crimes.

Vance's office has been locked in a battle for Trump's returns since at least early 2019.

Vance, a Democrat, was first investigating a $130,000 hush-money payment made by Cohen to adult-film star Stormy Daniels at the height of the presidential campaign in 2016. Daniels claimed she had an affair with Trump years ago.

That led Vance to subpoena for eight years of Trump's personal and business tax returns, but Trump in 2019 sued in federal court to block the release, arguing the whole way to the Supreme Court — where they case now rests.

Vance's case appears to be intensifying as the president is set to leave office. 

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One upon arrival at Valley International Airport, Jan. 12, 2021, in Harlingen, Texas, after visiting a section of the border wall with Mexico in Alamo, Texas.

Vance's office has recently interviewed employees of Trump’s bank and insurance broker and has issued new subpoenas and conducted new questioning of witnesses, including before a grand jury, the New York Times reported last month, citing unnamed sources.

The paper also reported that Vance’s office had subpoenaed the Trump Organization for information on potential tax write-offs for millions of dollars in consulting fees, some of which may have gone to Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter.

Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s general counsel, told the Times the subpoenas were part of an “ongoing attempt to harass the company.”

And he contended: "Everything was done in strict compliance with applicable law and under the advice of counsel and tax experts.”

More:How New York House members voted on impeaching Donald Trump

More:New York congressional members say they're safe; Some call for Trump's impeachment

Joseph Spector is the Government and Politics Editor for the USA TODAY Network's Atlantic Group, overseeing coverage in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany

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