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Former President Donald Trump waits to take the witness stand Nov. 6, 2023, during his civil fraud trial at New York Supreme Court. (AP) Former President Donald Trump waits to take the witness stand Nov. 6, 2023, during his civil fraud trial at New York Supreme Court. (AP)

Former President Donald Trump waits to take the witness stand Nov. 6, 2023, during his civil fraud trial at New York Supreme Court. (AP)

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson February 20, 2024
Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman February 20, 2024

Fact-check: Trump’s baseless claim that Biden directed the New York civil fraud investigation

If Your Time is short

Following a $355 million court ruling against his business empire, former President Donald Trump lashed out, blaming President Joe Biden, his likely opponent in November.

In a Feb. 16 statement posted to his Truth Social platform, Trump’s campaign referred to the case as the "Crooked Joe Biden-directed New York AG Witch Hunt," vowing to "fight Crooked Joe Biden’s weaponized persecution at every step."

Trump often describes cases against him as "election interference" or "political," including the federal prosecution in the election interference case headed by Special Counsel Jack Smith. But this specific attack by Trump directed at New York Attorney General Letitia James is particularly misleading because she is a state elected official who does not take direction from federal leaders.

We interviewed four former state attorneys general. They told us that, in that role, it’s not uncommon to communicate with federal officials, but that such contacts hardly amount to an official from one level of government "directing" what an official from another level of government does in an investigation or prosecution.  

We contacted the Trump campaign to ask for his evidence but received no reply. 

In the civil fraud case Trump referred to, New York State Supreme Court Justice Arthur F. Engoron ruled against Trump, concluding that Trump, Trump’s business and affiliated people had committed fraud by falsely inflating the value of his assets. Engoron ordered them to pay more than $450 million including interest. Trump is appealing the ruling. 

James signaled she would investigate Trump in 2018

During her 2018 campaign for attorney general, James made several public statements announcing her intent to investigate Trump, though she didn’t specify the type of case she would file. 

During a September 2018 debate, James was asked, "What is your view of the proper basis required to start an investigation?" And how, a moderator asked, would she guard against a rush to judgment "against someone, whether it’s an average, unknown New Yorker or Donald Trump and his associates?"

In her answer, James replied, "We need to follow his money."

In November 2018, after James won, she said, "Oh, we’re going to definitely sue him. We’re going to be a real pain in the ass. He’s going to know my name personally."

In March 2019, James opened an investigation into Trump after his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, testified before Congress that Trump’s annual financial statements had inflated the values of Trump’s assets. James filed the lawsuit against Trump in 2022.

James’ investigation started before Biden became the Democratic presidential front-runner in spring 2020 and well before he became president Jan. 20, 2021. In 2018, Biden was a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania; he announced his candidacy in April 2019. 

So, from the timeline alone, Trump’s assertion that Biden "directed" James’ case is nonsensical.

James visited the White House for events

In our search for Trump’s evidence, we noted that Trump has linked James to Biden in previous remarks, saying she had visited Biden at the White House. 

"Letitia James visited Joe Biden in the White House numerous times during the Trump witch hunt," Trump said in January as the civil fraud trial was wrapping up. Trump called it a "conspiracy" to help Biden politically.

She did make three visits, but they were hardly a secret.

In each case, James went to the White House for widely attended events in her official capacity, according to White House visitor logs:

  • An April 8, 2022, event saluting the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. The visitor log shows 448 people attended the event, including five Democrats serving as state attorneys general. James posed for a photo with attorneys general from Illinois and Nevada. Although the visitor logs said James met with Biden, the president made public remarks on the lawn and the White House told PolitiFact that he did not meet with attendees individually. This video shows after Biden’s remarks he walked away from the crowd.

  • A July 18, 2023, meeting with Vice President Kamala Harris on fentanyl policy. A statement released by the White House after that event said Harris convened attorneys general from seven states and the District of Columbia for a conversation on efforts to disrupt the supply chain for the deadly drug and improve responses to overdoses. Twenty-six people attended the event, the log shows; Biden was not among them.

  • An Aug. 31, 2023, event with Harris honoring Black women holding elected office across the country. The National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women and the Higher Heights Leadership Fund co-hosted the event, at Harris’ home. The visitor log showed 243 people attended the event, including James, who is Black. Biden did not attend.

Would a state attorney general and a president coordinate?

Bob Butterworth, who was a Democratic attorney general in Florida from 1987 to 2002, said in a telephone interview that attorneys general may coordinate joint investigations with officials in other states or from federal agencies such as the FBI.

However, Butterworth said, "I can’t ever recall being directed by a president. I think they have better things to do."

Bill McCollum, a Republican attorney general in Florida from 2007 to 2011, said there are occasions when state attorneys general coordinate with federal regulators or the U.S. Justice Department on investigations. But he added that he had no way to know whether that happened in this case.

"No state AG can be directed to do anything by any federal official other than a federal judge," McCollum told PolitiFact in an email. "Of course, the president could ask a state AG to do something, but states are sovereign and cannot be mandated to do things by the federal government, which only has the powers delegated to it by the Constitution and amendments thereto."

 James Tierney, a Democratic former Maine attorney general who has taught about state attorneys general at Columbia University, Harvard University and New York University, said state and federal governments do coordinate enforcement actions, for everything from prosecuting a drug cartel to challenging a corporate merger.

But both Tierney and Scott Harshbarger, a Democrat who served as attorney general in Massachusetts, agreed that Trump’s suggestion that Biden directed James was entirely unsupported. The notion is "absurd," Harshbarger said.

Our ruling 

Trump said Biden "directed New York AG Witch Hunt" into Donald Trump’s real estate.

The timeline of James’ actions conflict with Trump’s statement. James said several times on the campaign trail in 2018 that she would investigate Trump; once she took office in March 2019, she launched the investigation. Biden was not the Democratic front-runner until spring 2020 and was not sworn in as president until January 2021.

Past attorneys general said state attorneys general do sometimes coordinate with federal officials, but they said they see no evidence that Biden "directed" James’ investigation.

We rate this statement False.  

RELATED: More than 1,000 fact-checks of Donald Trump

Our Sources

Trump campaign, Statement from President Donald J. Trump on Crooked Joe Biden-directed New York AG Witch Hunt, Feb. 16, 2024

New York Attorney General, Attorney General James Wins Landmark Victory in Case Against Donald Trump, Feb. 16, 2024

New York Attorney General, Attorney General James Takes Action to Force Donald J. Trump, Donald Trump, Jr., and Ivanka Trump to Comply with Ongoing Investigation Into Trump Organization’s Financial Dealings, Jan. 18, 2022

White House visitor logs, 2022-23

Democratic Attorneys General Association, Press release, April 8, 2022

Emily Rossi, X post, April 8, 2022

PBS News Hour, WATCH LIVE: Biden and Harris host celebration of Ketanji Brown Jackson's SCOTUS confirmation, April 8, 2022

White House, Readout of Vice President Kamala Harris’s Meeting with State Attorneys General on Efforts to Stop Illicit Fentanyl Trafficking and Save Lives, July 18, 2023, Alabama state Rep. Givan and VP Kamala Harris to host reception in D.C. Aug. 29, 2023, Trump Distorts the Facts About His New York Civil Trial, Jan. 12, 2024

Associated Press, Trump levels unsubstantiated claims of collusion against New York AG as civil fraud trial wraps up, Jan. 12, 2024

CNN, Trump Gives Remarks As Civil Trial Starts To Wrap Up; Closing Arguments In Trump Civil Fraud Trial. Jan, 11, 2024

CNN, Fact Check: Donald Trump repeats false claims about his legal troubles after closing arguments in civil trial, Jan. 15, 2024

CNN, Joe Biden’s historic and unbelievable political comeback dominates Super Tuesday, March 4, 2020

PolitiFact, In Context: What NY Attorney General Letitia James said about Trump that Trump’s video left out, Aug. 12, 2022

PolitiFact, What Biden omits in his repeated claim about teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, Sept. 19, 2023

Email interview, Bill McCollum, former Florida attorney general, Feb. 20, 2024

Telephone interview, Bob Butterworth, former Florida attorney general, Feb. 20, 2024

Email interview with James Tierney, former Maine attorney general, Feb. 20, 2024

Email interview with Scott Harshbarger, former Massachusetts attorney general, Feb. 20, 2024

Email interview, Sharon Yang, White House spokesperson, Feb. 16, 2024

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Fact-check: Trump’s baseless claim that Biden directed the New York civil fraud investigation

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