WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump is no stranger to legal scrutiny, but there's something different about the $250 million civil lawsuit New York Attorney General Letitia James filed against him Wednesday: This time, it's as personal for him as it is political.
James' suit strikes directly at Trump's children and at the core of his persona as a billionaire businessman who left an indelible imprint on New York's skyline.
The real estate empire he flaunted was propped up by a network of fraudulent business dealings that played out for years, the suit alleges. If James prevails in court, the former president and three of his children would be banned from serving as officers of companies in New York — the state that gave rise to his global brand.
“It means a lot to him that this is happening in his home state,” said Jack O’Donnell, a former Trump hotel-casino executive. “He can live in Florida and spend most of his time in New Jersey, but this is a New Yorker through and through in his own mind. It’s a personal blow for him that this even happened.”
Upping the stakes, James named Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump as co-defendants in accusing the former president's companies of manipulating business records to secure favorable loans, fool insurers and win tax benefits.
"As executive vice presidents, the three children were intimately involved in the operation of the Trump Organization's business," James' lawsuit alleges. "They were aware of the true financial performance of the company."
Though the lawsuit does not formally seek a corporate death penalty dissolution of Trump’s empire, a defeat in court could cripple the organization at the heart of his art-of-the-deal brand in business, television and politics.
“Art of the steal,” James chided during a Wednesday press conference in which she portrayed Trump’s legendary business savvy as an illusion built on deception.
Trump parlayed his business career into a political movement that is exceedingly loyal and showing no signs of fracture now. He has all but announced that he's running for president in 2024, and the New York lawsuit, like the FBI's search of his Mar-a-Lago home before it, doesn't figure to be much of a deterrent.
"It probably makes it more likely that he runs for president, as I believe, should he win, the lawsuit would be held in abeyance while he was in office," Mick Mulvaney, a former Trump White House chief of staff, told NBC News.
Trump is already facing a slew of state and federal investigations into his business practices, his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the removal of sensitive documents from the White House.
His legal team evokes “firemen rushing into 40 different buildings," one person close to Trump said.
In all cases, Trump has denied any wrongdoing. Allies say that, if anything, James' lawsuit will rally Republicans around him.
“It just reinforces his base and I think it makes it very difficult now for the [GOP] establishment not to support him,” said Steve Bannon, a former top Trump White House and campaign aide who hosts the “War Room” podcast that is popular with the former president’s voters. “In an ironic way, just like the Mar-a-Lago raid, it makes the establishment have to defend him ... the establishment that would like to cut him loose right now.”
Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally and former House speaker, said: "The way the game is played in New York, it doesn’t strike me that most Americans will be shocked that Trump was a realtor in maybe the toughest and most ruthless market in the country and he had sharp elbows. So? Most Americans would kind of like it if he was using his sharp elbows on China.”
After James announced the suit, Trump reprised a familiar line of defense: He's being persecuted by Democratic foes.
"She is a fraud who campaigned on a 'get Trump' platform, despite the fact that the city is one of the crime and murder disasters of the world under her watch!" Trump wrote on his social media site, Truth Social.
Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump took to Twitter, accusing James of using their family to advance her own political interests and those of the Democratic Party.
"Letitia James doesn’t care about the law," Trump Jr. tweeted. "She’s a Dem activist, who only cares about politics."
Polling suggests that Trump is failing to gain traction with his argument that he's the victim of a "witch hunt." He has lashed out at law enforcement bodies that are investigating him, but most Americans don't seem persuaded that he's been unfairly targeted. A new NBC News poll showed that only 34% view him positively, compared to 54% who hold a negative view. By contrast, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, both of which played roles in the search warrant executed at Mar-a-Lago last month, were each viewed more positively than negatively.
"What our incredible attorney general [James] has done is to hold Donald and his children accountable," said Michael Cohen, the former Trump lawyer who served a prison sentence after pleading guilty to tax and campaign finance crimes.
"It contradicts every statement that Donald has made about himself in regard to his business acumen, his successes, and his wealth."