Updated February 23, 2024 at 8:32 PM ET

It was another day of eye-popping courtroom victories for New York state Attorney General Letitia James on Friday.

A jury in Manhattan found top executives of the National Rifle Association liable after a six-week corruption lawsuit that she brought against the men.

Two of the NRA's leaders, Wayne LaPierre and Wilson Phillips, have been ordered to repay roughly $6.4 million dollars between them. Their attorneys say they will appeal.

"This verdict is a major victory for the people of New York and our efforts to stop the corruption and greed at the NRA," James said in a statement.

Just hours earlier a state judge in New York City finalized a ruling in another case brought by James, ordering former President Donald Trump to pay a total of $454 million in penalties linked to fraud allegations. He has 30 days to appeal.

"Donald Trump may have authored The Art of the Deal, but he perfected the art of the steal," James said at a news conference last Friday after the ruling against Trump was issued.

She then took a shot at Trump's character: "The scale and the scope of Donald Trump's fraud is staggering and so too is his ego and his belief that the rules do not apply to him."

Once little known outside New York City, now taking on national figures

James, 65, is a Democrat who made history as the first Black woman to serve as New York's attorney general.

A Brooklyn native and a graduate of Howard University School of Law, she wasn't widely known outside New York City, where she served on the City Council and later in the largely ceremonial role of public advocate.

But after just five years as New York state's attorney general, James has built a reputation as a giant-slayer, targeting — and in some cases, toppling — some of the most powerful figures and organizations in the United States.

  • In 2019, when Trump was still in the White House, she pursued a lawsuit against his charitable operation, accusing him of misusing donations. She prevailed, forcing Trump to shut down his Trump Foundation and pay a $2 million fine.

  • Her corruption lawsuit against the National Rifle Association, filed in 2020 pushed the once-mighty gun rights group to the brink of insolvency. Longtime NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, once a towering figure in American politics, stepped down in January on the eve of the trial, citing health concerns. "LaPierre's resignation validates our claims against him, but it will not insulate him or the NRA from accountability," James said last month in a statement. A jury found Friday that he's caused more than $5.4 million dollars in harm to the gun group.

  • Her office's 2021 probe of sexual harassment allegations produced a damning report that is widely credited with forcing the resignation of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who denied any wrongdoing. "Today closes a sad chapter for all of New York," James said in a statement after Cuomo announced he would step aside, "but it's an important step towards justice."

  • Her recent victory against Trump and two of his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, is clearly her largest to date, raising questions about the future of the real estate empire that helped shape Trump's public identity. In addition to the hefty financial penalty, Trump is banned from doing business in New York state for three years; his sons, for two years. They have promised to appeal.

While her track record taking on and winning big cases has won James accolades, it has also drawn criticism.

Trump and his allies have long claimed her choice of targets reflects bias on the part of an ambitious Democratic politician.

"We have a totally corrupt attorney general," Trump said during a news conference February 16th at his Mar-a-Lago property in Palm Beach, Fla., and he promised to appeal.

"She campaigned on the fact that 'I will get Trump, I will get Trump.' Everybody's seen it," Trump added.

James campaigned promising to "take on" Trump

Indeed, Trump's accusation that James is part of a political "witch hunt" is fueled in part by her own campaign rhetoric.

When James ran for attorney general in 2018, Trump was still in the White House. She made it clear to voters that he was in her crosshairs.

In one campaign video, James promised to "take on President Donald Trump and anyone who tries to deny New Yorkers their most basic rights."

"I'm running for attorney general because I will never be afraid to challenge this illegitimate president," James said in another campaign video.

After winning office, James gave an interview to NBC News in December 2018 where she promised to "use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions and that of his family as well."

She did as promised.

During her first year in office, James successfully pursued her first civil lawsuit against Trump, filed initially by her predecessor, alleging he misused donations given to his charitable organization. Trump paid $2 million and his foundation was dissolved.

"These damages speak to the president's abuse of power," James said in a statement, adding that "no one is above the law ... not even the president of the United States."

Despite agreeing to portions of the settlement, Trump fired back, denying wrongdoing and complaining he was being "attacked by the political hacks in New York State."

In September 2022, James sued Trump again, this time on the fraud charges that led to last week's jaw-dropping penalties.

During a news conference announcing the lawsuit, James acknowledged she would face criticism that her lawsuit is partisan.

She said her investigation of Trump's business dealings "only started after Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, testified before Congress about this conduct."

"We have produced evidence about the scope, the scale, the depth, the breadth of the illegality, the fraud that personally enriched Donald Trump and his family," James said.

Trump again blasted James, using a racially charged nickname and accusing her in a post on his Truth Social site of being a "fraud who campaigned on a 'get Trump' platform."

Attacks against James amplified by right-wing media

Conservative media have amplified claims by Trump, who faces dozens of criminal charges in four separate cases, that he is being attacked unfairly by Democratic prosecutors, including James, as part of an effort to cripple him politically.

In Manhattan, Trump faces a criminal trial, brought by District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, linked to allegedly illegal hush money payments.

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, also a Democrat, is pursuing criminal charges against Trump linked to allegations that he tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia.

Trump also faces federal charges linked to alleged election interference and charges that he improperly handled classified documents after leaving the White House.

"They're going in with a predetermined agenda and making that a campaign promise," said Fox News personality Sean Hannity in October on the TV channel. "Does that sound like justice?"

Speaking on Hannity's program, George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley echoed the concern that James, in particular, acted improperly.

"When James was running for office, I wrote that I thought there were serious ethical problems with a prosecutor really trying to secure office on the pledge to nail one person," Turley said. "This a trophy pledge that 'I'm going to bag Donald Trump.'"

This month, a close Trump ally, Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., filed an ethics complaint against James.

"Ms. James has displayed a personal vendetta against President Trump that renders her unable to impartially handle cases," Stefanik said.

Members of Andrew Cuomo's inner circle have also accused James of bias, saying she used her office's sexual harassment probe to force him out of office.

"It's all about what serves [Letitia] James," said Rich Azzopardi, a longtime Democratic operative in New York and an adviser to Cuomo. "It has nothing to do with the responsibilities of the office. I've never seen a more political attorney general."

James did briefly run for governor after Cuomo's resignation, but her campaign faltered. She withdrew from the governor's race and instead won a second term as state attorney general in November 2022.

"This case has never been about politics"

James didn't accept NPR's repeated requests for an interview for this story.

In public appearances, however, she has addressed accusations that her lawsuits against Trump are political.

"This case has never been about politics or personal vendettas or about name-calling," James said last year. "This case is about the facts and the law."

Christina Greer, a political scientist at the City College of New York who has studied James' career, said it's common for prosecutors to take firm public positions, sometimes controversial ones, on policy and the law.

"It's an elected position. Isn't there always going to be politics for an elected position? I mean, she has to have a point of view."

Greer noted that James' lawsuits are all tested in court, before judges or juries. Powerful defendants, typically represented by top-tier legal teams, have the opportunity to prove that cases are flawed or biased.

Instead, James continues to prevail.

"She's able to take on these very high-powered men, Democrats and Republicans alike, because she also had a very dedicated team of lawyers [who build strong cases]," Greer said.

Court rejects NRA's "witch hunt" claim

Attorneys for the NRA, too, attempted to argue in court that James' lawsuit was politically motivated.

The gun group claimed repeatedly in legal filings that James' lawsuit was politically motivated, part of a "witch hunt" designed to weaken and silence a conservative advocacy group.

In 2022, however, state Judge Joel Cohen rejected the NRA's argument of political bias and allowed the case to move forward.

"There are no factual allegations [by the NRA] suggesting that the stated concerns driving the investigation – reports of fraud, waste, and looting within the NRA – were imaginary or not believed by the Attorney General," Cohen wrote.

On Friday, a jury again validated a complex civil case brought by James and her team, finding that LaPierre and others leading the NRA violated their duty to manage the non-profit ethically.

"We will not hesitate to pursue justice against any individual or organization that violates our laws or our trust, no matter how powerful they are," James said in a statement.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.



A jury verdict could come at any time now in a corruption trial in Manhattan involving leaders of the National Rifle Association. The lawsuit against the once-powerful gun group was brought by New York state Attorney General Letitia James. James is the same prosecutor whose fraud case against former President Donald Trump led to hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties last week. As NPR's Brian Mann reports, James has built a reputation and sparked controversy taking on some of the country's most powerful institutions and people.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: When Letitia James ran as a Democrat for attorney general in 2018, she was already in her early 60s and still mostly unknown outside New York City, where she'd served on the city council. During the campaign, James, who grew up in Brooklyn, promised to use the law aggressively.


LETITIA JAMES: I will take on powerful interests and hold them accountable because regardless of where you live.

MANN: In that campaign video, James singled out one man.


JAMES: I will take on President Donald Trump and anyone who tries to deny New Yorkers their most basic rights.

MANN: James won, making history as New York's first Black woman to serve as state attorney general. After the election, she told NBC news, quote, "We will use every area of the law to investigate President Trump and his business transactions." And in her first year in office, James did just that. Her 2019 lawsuit forced Trump, still a sitting president, to shut down his charitable organization, The Trump Foundation, and pay a $2 million fine for allegedly misusing donations. James then sued Trump a second time, a far more sweeping case, claiming he deliberately inflated the value of his real estate holdings. And last week, she won again.


JAMES: Donald Trump may have authored "The Art Of The Deal," but he perfected the art of the steal.

MANN: Trump, his sons and their company were ordered to pay more than $350 million in penalties. Trump's promiseD to appeal. But speaking on Friday, James blasted the former president, using language that at times sounded personal.


JAMES: Donald Trump's fraud is staggering, and so, too, is his ego.

MANN: This kind of rhetoric, while James was campaigning for attorney general and afterwards, has fueled accusations by Trump and his allies that James' lawsuits are politically motivated. Here's the former president speaking Friday.


DONALD TRUMP: Letitia James - that's another case altogether. She's a horribly corrupt attorney general, and it's all having to do with election interference.

MANN: After clashing with James, Trump took to calling her by a racially charged nickname and adding her to the list of enemies he says should be locked up.


TRUMP: You know who should be arrested? The attorney general should be arrested for what she's doing.

MANN: James has also become the focus of attacks by right-wing media figures like Sean Hannity, who say James and other Democratic prosecutors have used the power of their offices to target Trump unfairly.


SEAN HANNITY: Does that sound like equal justice, blind justice in America? I don't think so.

MANN: Appearing on Hannity's show on Fox in October, Jonathan Turley, the legal scholar from George Washington University, accused James in particular of campaigning improperly on a promise to bring Trump down.


JONATHAN TURLEY: This is a trophy pledge that I'm going to bag Donald Trump.

MANN: Trump hasn't been James' only high-profile target. In 2020, she sued the National Rifle Association's top executives, claiming widespread corruption.


JAMES: The NRA's influence has been so powerful that the organization went unchecked for decades.

MANN: This case is now before a jury in Manhattan, but it's already forced the gun rights group to seek bankruptcy protection. On the eve of the trial, James' lawsuit toppled another once-powerful figure. Longtime NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre, who's named in the suit, resigned abruptly, citing health concerns. James hasn't only taken on conservatives. In 2021, it was a probe by her office into allegations of sexual harassment that toppled a fellow Democrat, then-governor Andrew Cuomo.


ANDREW CUOMO: The attorney general did a report on complaints made against me by certain women for my conduct. The report said. I sexually harassed 11 women.

MANN: Cuomo denied wrongdoing but resigned after also accusing James of a political hit job. Christina Greer, a political scientist at the City College of New York who studied James' career, says it's inevitable a prosecutor challenging powerful individuals and organizations will face blowback and criticism.

CHRISTINA GREER: It's an elected position, so isn't there always going to be politics in an elected position?

MANN: Greer points out that whatever rhetoric James uses outside the courtroom, her cases are tested by judges and juries. Defendants, often represented by top-tier legal teams, have opportunity to show in court that allegations are false or politically biased. But so far, Greer says, James keeps winning.

GREER: She's able to take on these very high-powered men, Democrats and Republicans alike, because she also has a very dedicated team of lawyers.

MANN: NPR asked James for an interview for this story. She declined. Speaking last year, she addressed Trump's claim that her focus on him is a political witch hunt.


JAMES: This case has never been about politics or personal vendetta or about name calling. This case is about the facts and the law.

MANN: James' crusading style has clearly earned her big enemies, and her rhetoric has raised questions about the boundary for prosecutors between politics and the law. So far, those questions have been overshadowed by big wins in the courtroom. Brian Mann, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "MULLED WINE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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