New York judge declines to end contempt fines against Trump

Trump submits affidavit saying he does not have documents sought in civil probe, but court continues $10,000-daily fine.

Former US President Donald Trump
Former US President Donald Trump denies wrongdoing and says investigation into his business practices is politically motivated [File: Ben Gray/AP]

A New York judge has expressed surprise that former US President Donald Trump, a man he described as perhaps the world’s most famous real estate developer, was unable to provide any documents sought in a probe of the Trump Organization, his family company.

Justice Arthur Engoron in New York state court in Manhattan said at a virtual hearing on Friday he would go on holding the ex-president in contempt of court and fine him $10,000 a day despite a request from Trump’s lawyer to lift both orders.

“He’s Donald Trump, the most famous real estate developer in the world, arguably,” the judge said. “I am surprised he doesn’t seem to have any documents; they’re all with the organisation.”

On Monday, Engoron issued the orders over Trump’s failure to comply with New York Attorney General Letitia James’s subpoena for documents. On Wednesday, Trump signed an affidavit saying he did not believe he had any relevant documents and, if there were any documents, the Trump Organization would have them.

On Friday, Engoron, who read Trump’s affidavit at the hearing, said the document bore “his inimitable signature” in what appeared to be a Sharpie, a brand of writing implement. But he said it lacked useful detail about where Trump kept his records.

In order to purge the contempt finding, Trump would have to submit an affidavit swearing to where his files were located, how they were stored, and who had access to them, as well as state whether he turned over his personal electronic devices for searching and imaging, the judge said later in a written order.

“You can fine us for 10 months but you’re not going to get any more documents from Donald Trump,” his lawyer Alina Habba said. “He doesn’t have the documents that you want.”

Trump had appealed Engoron’s decision earlier this week.

James, a Democrat, has been investigating whether Trump, a Republican, inflated the value of his assets to improperly obtain bank loans and other financial benefits.

Trump denies wrongdoing and says investigations into his business practices are politically motivated. Last year, he sued James to block the probe. The lawsuit called the investigation a “baseless” and “malicious fishing expedition” seeking to harass the ex-president.

In turn, James has accused the former president of attempting to stall the investigation.

“The judge’s order was clear: Donald J Trump is in contempt of court and must pay $10,000 a day until he complies with our subpoenas,” the attorney general said in a statement after Trump filed his appeal on Wednesday.

“We’ve seen this playbook before, and it has never stopped our investigation of Mr Trump and his organisation. This time is no different.”

Trump’s lawyers have insisted “all documents responsive to the subpoena were produced to the attorney general months ago”, but James’s office said it received “zero documents” from Trump by the end of March.

The New York attorney general launched the civil investigation in 2019 after Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen testified in Congress that the ex-president exaggerated his assets “when it served his purposes”.

Trump was impeached twice as president, including in early 2021 for inciting a riot at the US Capitol as legislators were certifying the election victory of his successor, Joe Biden, but he was acquitted by the Senate in votes along party lines.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies