Will This Man Take Down Donald Trump?
Published February 3, 2017 in
“I like you. You and me, we’re going to be best friends.”
It is early January, and Eric Schneiderman is sitting in his 25th-floor office above Lower Manhattan, doing his best Donald Trump impression, puckering his lips into a duck face, scrunching up his nose and lowering his voice into something that resembles the president’s outer-borough growl.
Schneiderman is recalling his meeting with Trump in 2010. Back then, Schneiderman was running for attorney general of New York, and Trump was still in his pre-birther, reality TV host phase. Trump had donated money to one of Schneiderman’s opponents in the Democratic primary. Schneiderman managed to pull off a come-from-behind victory, and after the race, he went to Trump Tower to ask for a donation for the general election. Trump coughed up $12,500 to the Democrat, and Schneiderman went on to beat his Republican opponent and win.
But Trump and Schneiderman did not become best friends. That meeting was the beginning of a long and increasingly bitter saga between the two. Schneiderman took up the state’s existing case against Trump University—New York wanted the school to drop the “university” from its name, since it was not chartered as an institution of higher learning and lacked a license to offer instruction—and as he pursued it over the next five years, he became the target of a relentless series of personal attacks from the Trump camp. Trump filed an ethics complaint alleging that Schneiderman offered to drop the suit in exchange for donations; he went on television to denounce Schneiderman as a hack and a lightweight, and said he was wasting millions of taxpayer dollars when he should have been going after Wall Street. (Never mind that Schneiderman had already been declared “the man the banks fear most” by the liberal magazine The American Prospect.) “The whole scorched-earth strategy towards those who would challenge him, we got a preview of,” says Schneiderman.
Schneiderman is a slender, slightly built former corporate lawyer, the only son of a New York philanthropist whose last names adorns several city cultural institutions. One never senses from him the kind of comfort and ease that people from his position tend to radiate, but rather a twitchy impatience, as if the vein on his forehead is going to pop while he busts some of the high-priced glassware in the political china shop. In the six years after he won that race, Schneiderman has emerged as perhaps the lefty media’s favorite lawyer, tangling with mortgage bankers, ExxonMobil, and national retailers like Abercrombie & Fitch, J Crew and The Gap. And on November 9, he was handed what might become his largest target when Donald Trump, his longtime nemesis, was elected president.
The Trump University suit eventually was settled for $25 million days after the election, despite the then president-elect’s repeated pledges never to settle. Schneiderman could have left it at that. But Schneiderman has let it be known that Trump is still in his crosshairs. In the days since November 9, Schneiderman fired off a letter warning Trump not to drop White House support of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, introduced a bill in the state Legislature to give New Yorkers cost-free contraception if the Affordable Care Act is dismantled, threatened to sue after Trump froze EPA funding of clean air and water programs, and joined a lawsuit that argues that Trump’s executive order on immigration is not just unconstitutional and un-American, but it brings profound harm to the residents of New York State.
He has a record of going not only after Trump, but going after people now in Trumpworld. He’s on the opposite side of the Clean Power Plan fight from Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, since named head of the EPA, and who Schneiderman labeled a “dangerous and unqualified choice.” He’s gone after Rex Tillerson, who as CEO of ExxonMobil defended his company from a Schneiderman investigation; since the election he’s begun investigating a reverse-mortgage business once led by Steven Mnuchin, the nominee to be the next Treasury secretary.
Trump listens as Trump University president Michael Sexton introduces him at a news conference in New York where he announced the establishment of Trump University in May 2005. | AP Photo
Schneiderman doesn’t think that the fact he has already appeared in court against Trump necessarily prepares him for what is about to come, but he has little doubt that something will come. Congress remains in Republican hands, and for the foreseeable future looks unwilling to provide much in the way of a check or a balance on the presidency. Governors and mayors can scream and protest, but beyond “setting an example” for other policymakers, the effect of their actions will be limited to their constituents.
Schneiderman, though, effectively leads a law firm of more than 650 lawyers, one with a two-decade tradition of taking its fights national. Now he faces an administration in Washington that is not just “pro-fraud,” as former Maine Attorney General James Tierney put it, but one helmed by someone very used to using the courts to get his way. “He’s not playing hide the ball,” Schneiderman said when asked about what he learned about the new president from his earlier tangle with him. “He’s not that different offstage from how he is on stage. This is him. He is a complicated guy in some respects, but he is used to making his own rules and he plays a very aggressive game. When he wants to get something done he will use every tool at his disposal.”
If Governor Eliot Spitzer became known as the “sheriff of Wall Street,” and Gov. Andrew Cuomo vowed to clean up Albany and become the “sheriff of State Street,” Schneiderman could very much become the next sheriff of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Schneiderman had seen dirty pool in his years as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, but his fight with the Trump Organization was, he says, “on the outer edge of normal.”
Two years into Schneiderman’s investigation of Trump University, Schneiderman filed a lawsuit against the company with charges of fraud; Trump himself retaliated by filing a complaint against the AG with the New York State board of ethics. He alleged that Schneiderman and his aides several times approached Trump, his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner for a contribution and for “the aid of their influence and celebrity status to secure other favors and preferential treatment in furtherance of Mr. Schneiderman’s political aspirations.” Schneiderman also promised several times to make sure that the messy investigation into Trump University went away, according to the complaint.
In an interview, Schneiderman says that nothing of the sort happened, and, in fact that after assuming office, he was expressly outlawed from soliciting Trump, since the developer was involved in all sorts of litigation with the state. Trump’s complaint was dismissed, but it was just one piece of a larger counteroffensive. “We got a preview of what everyone else got a few years later,” Schneiderman says.
Some of the assault came via Twitter: “Lightweight NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is trying to extort me with a civil lawsuit,” Trump tweeted in August 2013. When Schneiderman toured Syracuse University that month with President Barack Obama to promote low-interest college loans, Trump went on Good Morning America and The Today Show to accuse Obama of paying Schneiderman off to take the suit. That fall, a new website appeared, 98percentapproval.com, that said on its homepage that it was “created to bring to the public’s attention the gross incompetence of New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.” The domain was registered by Trump’s attorneys.
Perhaps most remarkably, in February of 2014, Schneiderman was the target of a lengthy, ferocious cover story in the New York Observer – the newspaper owned by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner—published in the midst of the dispute. The headline read, “The Power and Politics of AG Schneiderman: Will Righteous Eric bag big prey? Or will Reckless Eric come undone?” and it portrayed the attorney general as the Malcolm McDowell character from A Clockwork Orange—an unredeemed sadist in too much eye makeup. (The eye makeup was a specific dig at his appearance: The attorney general takes a glaucoma medication that makes his lashes appear thicker and darker than normal.) The article itself was a thinly sourced anti-Schneiderman op-ed, 7,200 words long, that spent almost half of its pages defending Trump. The story became a bit of tantalizing New York media gossip when it was revealed that the famously under-resourced society paper spent eight months on the story, and its editor, a Kushner family loyalist, had found the manager of an ice cream shop in suburban New Jersey without a single previous byline to report and write it. (The ice cream shop manager, it should be noted, eventually begged off when the story seemed too much like a hit piece, and The Observer found someone more credentialed to do it.)
By November 2016, it seemed as though Schneiderman would have Trump all to himself. Polls showed the reality TV star losing the presidential race, and he looked set to return to New York, where liberals were prodding Schneiderman to make his return to private life miserable. There was the ongoing litigation involving Trump University, which Trump pledged to never settle, and a new investigation of the Trump Foundation.
Then came November 8. Schneiderman had spent the evening at various VIP suites at the Hillary Clinton election night party, when it started becoming clear that his tormentor was not only not returning as a constituent, but was about to become the leader of the free world. A Democratic official turned to one of Schneiderman’s aides and said: “I guess it’s going to be up to you guys now.”
The next morning, as the office’s lawyers stumbled into work in a fog of exhaustion and worry, Schneiderman called a meeting. In the room were his senior staff and some of the bureau chiefs. There were tears. There were lawyers who couldn’t believe that Donald Trump—Donald Trump!—was about to become the next president of the United States. Schneiderman urged calm. Don’t just rush out and do. Take a deep breath, he told them. Let the moment wash over you. We can’t do everything at once, so prioritize. We are going to have to do more—not with less, necessarily, but with no greater resources.
Schneiderman ordered a top-to-bottom review of all his office’s outstanding business with the U.S. Department of Justice, both for and against, expecting that in the former cases that the federal government would be likely to switch sides, which would mean a loss of resources and knowledge-sharing. Another mission was to prepare rearguard actions to protect New Yorkers against whatever onslaught might come from Washington, including laying out new sanctuary city guidelines, and possible responses if the administration defunded Planned Parenthood or the EPA. They also began to lay the groundwork to fill in as regulators in areas where the federal government might stop enforcing laws already on the books, from labor laws, to securities regulation, to clean water and clear air enforcement. And he began to free up staff for what the attorney general’s office refers to internally as “Bet The House Litigation”—the kind of thing that would require a massive redeployment of the office’s resources, such as fighting a Muslim registry, or blocking an executive order to reinstitute some kind of stop-and-frisk program.
It was becoming clearer to liberal America in the days after the election that any real resistance to Trump would have to come from the states, especially those that went big for Clinton. At David Brock’s post-election donor retreat in Florida, former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm introduced Schneiderman as “the dean of progressive AGs.” He made the rounds on CNN and MSNBC and was singled out for praise from Mark Ruffalo and The Nation’s Katrina Vanden Heuvel. And he traveled around the state, appearing at town halls with grass-roots activists where he urged them not to despair. They were in the early stages of a new movement for civil rights, he said, and would prevail in the end.
It’s not just a question of blocking Trump’s policies: Schneiderman is one of the names that arises when it comes to the great liberal dream: finding something in Trump’s web of conflicts that prohibits him from serving out the remainder of his term. That Trump was a resident of New York and until recently ran his businesses there—and still owns those businesses—would appear to give Schneiderman a big target. Plus, in September, in the heat of the election, Schneiderman announced that he was beginning an investigation into the Trump Foundation for, among other things, using foundation money to make a donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi soon after she announced that her office would not investigate Trump University. After the election, Trump attempted to dissolve the charity as part of his transition, and Schneiderman ordered him not to. The investigation is continuing.
Earlier this week, Schneiderman appeared on a call-in radio show on a New York City public radio station when a caller asked whether any of Schneiderman’s investigations could lead to Trump’s eventual impeachment. The attorney general demurred, saying he doubted that anything related to Trump’s foundation or his university would rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”
“There are a lot of reports of egregious acts he’s taken in the course of his business: his sexual assaults and other things—that’s all fair game,” he added. “We’re not—you know, we’re not out to get Mr. Trump. We’re just out to enforce the law. And if he’s broken New York law, we will enforce the law.”
When I visited Schneiderman’s office last month, I asked him a version of that same question—whether Trump’s tangled business interests, many of which were housed within a few miles of where we were sitting, meant that the attorney general of New York had a particular role to play in investigating the president. On his desk, between a tiny Buddha figurine, a bumper sticker reading “ASSUME NOTHING” and a handful of other files, was a report from the Brookings Institution on the Emoluments Clause, a once obscure constitutional provision that prohibits federal officeholders from accepting gifts from foreign states.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but we are so far off the map in terms of any litigation that has taken place,” Schneiderman said, waving around a copy of the report. “We are not dealing with case law here. What are the examples you got of violations of this? Oh, American emissaries to the Court of Louis XVI were tortured and he bestowed on Benjamin Franklin a snuff box bearing the royal portrait of—I mean, this is the precedent?” I don’t want to overstate what I can do.”
Nationally, Schneiderman is taking advantage of something of an empowerment wave among state AGs. Over the past few years, the network of Democratic attorneys general has become more cohesive and more professionalized. In 2014, a number of other Democratic AGs decided that they wanted the group to become on par politically with the Democratic Governors Association, or the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They hired Sean Rankin, a DC-based political consultant, as executive director and hired a staff of a dozen.
Though Schneiderman has served only since 2011, he is now one of the more senior Democratic attorneys general in the country—the Obama years weren’t kind to statewide Democratic officeholders—and he has been organizing his more left-leaning counterparts into something like a cohesive force, recently meeting with Josh Shapiro, the newly minted attorney general of Pennsylvania, Xavier Becerra of California and Maura Healey of Massachusetts to plot strategy. Because the office is so large, and because New Yorkers have come to expect an activist attorney general, New York is often the lead state when the group drafts a letter to Congress or files an amicus brief, a strategy that allows him to shape the direction the group goes in.
People who knew Schneiderman from his days in the New York State Senate, where he represented the ultra-liberal Upper West Side, wouldn’t exactly have picked him as a unifying force. In fact, he was almost immediately so disliked by his colleagues that Republicans and Democrats alike redrew him into a 55 percent Latino district that stretched through West Harlem and Washington Heights. He learned Spanish, won reelection anyway and served for 10 more years in the Legislature. But the reputation of not playing well with others has been one he hasn’t quite been able to shake. It was solidified when he refused to join the Obama administration’s 2011 mortgage settlement, one that 49 other AGs had already signed off on, instead holding out for more money and a less forgiving deal. In the end, the settlement broke his way—his intransigence helped win another $6 billion and a tougher agreement—and Obama named Schneiderman to co-lead a commission investigating the banks.
When speaking with other attorneys general around the country, it is possible to pick up on a slight air of resentment that Schneiderman’s proximity to New York City television studios grant him a larger audience than he would otherwise receive. But in the Trump era, with a White House run by an aggressive, take-no-prisoners rule-breaker, his style suddenly looks like an asset. “It’s a New Yorker thing—the brashness, the sharp elbows,” said an aide to another attorney general. “It’s hard not to notice the atmospherics when he takes on Trump.”
Through the new national AG network, the New York attorney general’s office was able to jump out quickly last week with a statement co-signed by 15 other state AGs when Trump’s Muslim ban went into effect at the airports. Schneiderman’s office had been preparing for just such a moment—it was why Schneiderman offered guidance to “sanctuary cities” after the election on how to handle any moves by the new administration—and worked through the weekend with AGs around the country on how to react. In the letter, which called the measure unconstitutional and un-American, Schneiderman demanded that the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Enforcement release the names of anyone being held. He then went on CBS This Morning to accuse the administration of unleashing chaos and not being forthcoming about the number of people detained at airports around the nation. The actual lawsuit, however, was filed by the attorney general of Washington, hoping to get a better hearing in the 9th Circuit on the West Coast. (Similarly, the Connecticut attorney general struck first after the inauguration, taking the lead on a lawsuit defending the constitutionality of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, a strategy on the part of Democratic AGs to share manpower and resources.)
At a post-election town hall, Schneiderman said his immediate role after the election was in talking people off the ledge. If there is a sanguinity to him these days, it is because Schneiderman sees this as a moment when Democrats can at last learn the lessons that Republicans have internalized over the past 70 years: that the real power in the Constitution lies in the states. The long-term political project he envisions is building a progressive grass-roots answer to what the right has been building for decades—not in the halls of Washington, but in “sexy towns like Tallahassee and Columbus and Madison and Albany.” That last one is instructive. New York’s state Senate remains in Republican hands, largely because a rogue group of centrist Democrats caucus with them, a group propped up by Cuomo, a longtime foil of the attorney general and of liberals throughout New York.
“We have to be a lot tougher. We have to be as demanding of our elected officials as conservatives are of theirs,” Schneiderman told an audience in the weeks after the election. “Nice words are not enough anymore. You have to deliver rewards. If you can’t deliver rewards on climate, on human rights, on protecting immigrants, on unwinding our failed experiment in mass incarceration, well, we love you and we will help you find another job, but right now, we have to find someone else that can do the job.”
Schneiderman has consistently denied that he is running for governor, a denial that seems to have helped smooth over the relationship between him and Cuomo and given Schneiderman more room to operate. When he talks of tossing the party-changers out of the temple, though, he certainly sounds like someone with political ambition.
The New York AGs office is known as a springboard for the ambitious, and in New York political circles the knock on Schneiderman has been that he’s slightly underplayed his hand there, retreating after the mortgage case in 2011 and 2012 and keeping quiet even if notching up victories. “He’s been perfectly fine if not spectacular,” said one local political operative close to him. “We are used to seeing Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo in that office, and he just hasn’t risen to that level yet.” In part, this is because Cuomo made it clear early on that he didn’t want anyone to upstage him in Albany, creating a new office dedicated to regulating financial services and installing a close ally to help run it. The two battled for the early part of Schneiderman’s tenure, but the feud has cooled in recent years as Cuomo has turned his attention to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Schneiderman has also had to work alongside a crusading U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, a charismatic presence who has used his office to target exactly the kind financial and political bad actors that both Spitzer and Cuomo made life difficult for. And in part, this is because of circumstances—both Spitzer and Cuomo spent the bulk of their time battling a Justice Department helmed by George Bush appointees. “I think he is probably as good a lawyer as they have had in that office in a long time,” said Tierney, “But you just don’t get the kind of splashy cases with an Obama presidency. Democratic AG’s are going to largely agree with his agencies and his Department of Justice.
All of that changes now. What Schneiderman can do—one state AG, or even a number of state AGs—against the leader of the right-populist wave in the White House remains to be seen. On the policy level, lawyers in his office are confident that so much of what Trump has proposed so far is so poorly written, and even more poorly thought out, that it opens itself up to all kinds of lawsuits.
“We don’t know what the legal consequences are yet of a lot of these executive orders,” said Healy, the attorney general of Massachusetts and a close Schneiderman ally. “But we do know that you are going to see a federal administration that is going to be rolling back consumer protections, labor protections, environmental protections, and looking to dismantle rights that have been put in place. The way you address that is you uphold the law through the courts, and that is the job of state AGs right now.”
Among Schneiderman’s New York troops, there is the unmistakable sense of suddenly fighting on new terrain. The office feels like it is in the middle of campaign season, with the other side rolling out a series of unpredictable attacks over the course of the week, leaving New York to figure which to fight back on and how. Applications for new positions have soared, even from private-sector lawyers willing to forgo hundreds of thousands of dollars in pay to help take on Trump.
“We are the backstop,” added Alvin Bragg, a top deputy in the office. “The system is set up in a certain way, that if the federal government doesn’t do certain things, we have to step up and push back. If they leave things wide open, we have to step into the void.”
At a standing room-only town hall in midtown Manhattan weeks after election, Schneiderman sounded like someone ready to lead the charge. Although few probably wanted to hear it, he painted a picture of an election that amounted to a clarifying moment for the left: it was time to clean out its hidebound notions and some of its own slow-moving elected officials.
“We are facing a crisis, not over conservative or liberal, but a crisis over whether or not the rule of law is respected or not, over whether the Constitution is respected or not, and whether the central American notion of equal justice under the law and that everyone be treated with dignity and equality and fairness—all that is at issue now,” he told the crowd.
But don’t despair, he hastened to add. “There is good news, too: Those who were asleep,” he said, “are now awake.”
The crowd loved it, nodding along, cheering and clapping at Schneiderman's urging. He left as soon as his speech was over, but everyone else stayed behind. The real work, it seemed, had not yet begun.