Trump Stars in New York Attorney General Candidates’ Debate

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump was two time zones away from the stately Manhattan auditorium that hosted Thursday’s debate for the Democratic nomination for New York attorney general, but he had a starring role anyway, as a convenient target who couldn’t fight back.

The candidates -- three women and the first openly gay man elected to Congress -- are vying to be New York’s next top law enforcement officer as the state expands its fight against Trump’s agenda. The contenders, two of whom are black, portrayed the fight as almost personal.

"Donald Trump is a clear and present danger," U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney, one of the Democratic candidates and a former White House staff secretary for Bill Clinton, said in his opening statement. “He is a crook, and a bigot, and he has a bulls eye on New York."

Underscoring the anti-Trump atmosphere at the storied Great Hall of the Cooper Union was the presence of moderator Preet Bharara, the former U.S. Attorney for New York who was fired by Trump and now has a popular podcast about justice that often targets the president.

New York state, where Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 21.3 percentage points in the 2016 election, is already fighting the president in numerous lawsuits targeting his policies on environmental protection, access to health care and immigration. There are also high-profile non-Trump investigations to pursue, such as a new probe of the Catholic Church’s handling of abuse allegations.

"We are at a true crisis moment in our democracy," said Zephyr Teachout, a law professor who has won endorsements from the New York Times and other newspapers. "The Donald Trump administration is regularly assaulting the very rule of law, and the New York attorney general’s office is one of the most important legal offices in the entire country to both resist and present an alternative to what is happening at the federal level."

The candidates took turns framing themselves as the next leader in the resistance to Trump, a role molded by former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and expanded by his successor, Barbara Underwood. Underwood took over the post until the election after Schneiderman resigned in May amid allegations that he abused women.

Trump signaled long ago that he’s prepared to make things personal if New York targets his interests, calling Schneiderman a “lightweight” after the state sued him in 2013, claiming the Trump University was a fraud. Trump tweeted about Schneiderman 18 times in three days after the suit was filed.

Trump hasn’t attacked Underwood in the same way. In fact, he hasn’t mentioned her by name in his tweets, although he lashed out at “sleazy New York Democrats” after Underwood sued the president’s personal charity in June. She claimed he used the Trump Foundation as his “personal piggy bank.”

Trump Stars in New York Attorney General Candidates’ Debate
Donald J. Trump@realDonaldTrump
The sleazy New York Democrats, and their now disgraced (and run out of town) A.G. Eric Schneiderman, are doing everything they can to sue me on a foundation that took in $18,800,000 and gave out to charity more money than it took in, $19,200,000. I won’t settle this case!...

Sent via Twitter for iPhone.

View original tweet.

New York City Public Advocate Leticia James, one of the four candidates, called for an expanded investigation of Trump and the Trump Organization.

"We need to find out whether or not he’s engaged in conspiracy and whether or not he’s colluded, not only with Putin but also with China," James said. "We all know that 10 years ago he was almost bankrupt. Most domestic banks were not lending him any money. Where did he get all the money to purchase his real estate holdings and all of his golf courses?"

James, who has depicted herself as the most progressive candidate in the race, created controversy last month when the New York Times quoted her as saying it was “critically important” that she “not be known as the ‘Sheriff on Wall Street.”’ Past state attorneys general, including Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo, built their careers and public approval using the state’s tough broad anti-fraud securities laws doing just that.

Maloney ran for re-election in 2014 boasting of several votes against former President Barack Obama’s agenda, including provisions in the Affordable Care Act and proposals to weaken the Dodd-Frank laws regulating Wall Street. While those votes may have played well in his district in the state’s Republican-leaning Hudson Valley, they aren’t consistent with the views of most state Democratic voters.

In the debate, Teachout brought up the recent guilty plea by Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, saying it "raised lots of questions" about the relationship between the president’s campaign, the Trump Foundation and Trump Organization.

With the candidates agreeing on their distaste for Trump, they sought to distinguish themselves with attacks on each other than sometimes got vicious. Teachout accused Maloney of giving banks a handout with his Dodd-Frank vote.

"What a pile of nonsense that is," Maloney responded, speaking over her at times and eliciting boos from the crowd. "Her rhetoric on this is completely unhinged."

Leecia Eve, a former aide to Cuomo, accused Teachout, a lawyer, of abandoning a client on death row to campaign. Teachout said she wasn’t the lead lawyer on that case. The other candidates also accused Teachout of conveniently joining the New York bar only a few weeks ago.

"I am uniquely qualified for this position," Teachout said, describing herself as a lifelong foe of corruption who is prepared to attack Trump in court at every turn.

The winner of the Sept. 13 primary will take on one of the three Republicans seeking the party’s nomination in the November election.

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