The civil lawsuit New York Attorney General Letitia James filed against Donald Trump and three of his kids is not exactly clickbait. The filing is 229 pages long. As is typical of descriptions of corporate fraud, you have to understand a bit of business stuff to fully grasp what’s going on—and even if you do, the upshot can want for drama. The gist of the James allegations, as she phrased it in a press conference on Wednesday morning, is that Trump “intentionally misvalued his assets for the purposes of increasing his net worth and inducing banks to offer more favorable terms.”
Snoozefest! I mean, I’m kidding—fraud is despicable and damaging, this particular fraud is so outlandish as to be absurd, and Trump and his kids (except Tiffany, who had the luck of being mercilessly excluded from the family business) are some of the most notorious consequence evaders on the planet. So yes, James was going to have the world’s eyeballs on her announcement. But she’s not the type to take that attention for granted. She wanted to deliver a slam-dunk. So, to amp up the emotional stakes of a series of rather dry-sounding crimes whose most direct victim, Deutsche Bank, is one of the least sympathetic entities in the history of entities—and to emphasize the magnitude of her role despite her lack of authority to file criminal charges in this case—James had to sell it for all she’s worth.
At her Wednesday reveal, she did just that. It was a theatrical performance, delivered with righteous indignance and milked for every available ounce of disdain. Even though James was undoubtedly combusting with glee on the inside as she enumerated the findings of her long-gestating investigation against the Trump family, and will probably pop open a bottle of Dom tonight as she answers a zillion congratulatory text messages, she executed her speech with the sober, saddened affect of a public official who, over the course of the investigation, was devastated anew by each revelation of Trump’s alleged misconduct.
The result is a thing of beauty. I’m not sure a prosecutor has ever made better use of the dramatic pause: As James explained on Wednesday, her office found evidence of Trump himself “engaging in a conspiracy to commit each. Of these. State. Law. Violations.” He listed a set of apartments at “Forty. Nine. Million. Dollars. That is about Sixty. Five. Times. The appraised valuation.” I can’t say I know exactly how an appraised valuation comes to be, or what substantive impact that would have on Trump’s financial situation, or who exactly was harmed by his lies, but when. It’s. Phrased. Like. This, I am incensed by the mere suggestion of such deceit!
New York has a long, rich history of state attorneys general pursuing the limelight with their prosecutions. It’s a trope so recognizable Paul Giamatti has productively satirized it for six full seasons on Billions. One can easily imagine Chuck Rhoades emitting the pained sigh James let out when she revealed that though Mar-a-Lago sits on property with restricted development potential, “the valuations represent that these restrictions—don’t even exist.” Likewise the sweeping remarks at the end of her speech, in which James painted the Trump asset-overvaluation story as “a tale of two justice systems: one for everyday working people, and one for the elite, the rich and powerful.”
But before she got to that bit of moral rectitude, she offered a few rhetorical flourishes to drive home the positively sickening greed at the heart of the alleged crimes.
There was the extra syllable: “The pattern of fraud and deception that was used by Mr. Trump and the Trump Organization for their own financial benefit,” she said, “is as-toun-din-guh.”
There was the pointed eyebrow raise: “Twenty-three assets!”
And, to evoke the Lucille Bluth airs affixed to every person of extreme wealth, there was the mocking tone deployed to imitate former Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, who estimated that a property value was inflated by an extra “give or take, $200 million.”
A press conference can’t go viral without a quotable catchphrase. To that end, James, who recently ran a failed campaign for governor and may well seek higher office again in the not-too-distant future, wrapped up her speech with a little wordplay. “Claiming you have money that you do not have does not amount to the art of the deal,” she said, with another woeful sigh. “It’s the art of the steal.”
Groan all you like, but if Trump taught us anything, it’s that showmanship is worth its weight in overvalued penthouses. Unlike Trump, James appears to have the receipts to back up her bluster. But with a line like “art of the steal” up her sleeve, who cares about the details? The headlines write themselves!