Zephyr Teachout Says She Pressed Eric Schneiderman Twice to Take On Trump Corruption: “He Did Not Act”

Zephyr Teachout pressed the former New York attorney general to lead the judicial challenge to Donald Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause.

New York's 19th Congressional District Democratic candidate Zephyr Teachout visits volunteers at her campaign office on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in Hudson, N.Y. Teachout is running against Republican John Faso. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Zephyr Teachout visits volunteers at her campaign office on Nov. 8, 2016, in Hudson, N.Y. Photo: Mike Groll/AP

Zephyr Teachout twice pressed former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to lead the judicial challenge to President Donald Trump’s violation of the emoluments clause of the U.S. Constitution, and both times he refused, she told The Intercept in an interview.

Teachout, who announced on May 23 that she would be running to replace Schneiderman, formally launched her campaign on Tuesday. Within a week of her announcement, she had raised more than $100,000, with the average donation coming in at $31, her campaign told The Intercept. Schneiderman stepped down following allegations that he physically abused multiple former girlfriends.

“It is not good enough to just do defensive lawyering, Teachout said. In her meetings with Schneiderman, she said she laid out an offensive path forward.

“I called him in December and I sat down with him in the first week of January 2017, before Donald Trump took office, and I brought with me precedents from the Office of Legal Counsel, cases about standing, law review articles and said, New York should be leading the charge of bringing a lawsuit against Donald Trump the minute he takes office for violating the foreign and domestic emoluments clause of the Constitution,” Teachout said.

The emoluments clause is a once-obscure constitutional provision that prohibits certain government officials, like the president, from receiving gifts or other payments from foreign governments without congressional approval. Legal experts believe that Trump may be violating the Constitution by maintaining ownership of businesses that take in foreign profits.

Teachout’s argument for a legal challenge, she said, rested on the physical presence in New York of an enterprise involved in alleged ongoing criminal activity, the Trump Organization. “New York has to do that because it is the epicenter of the Trump empire,” she said. “Of the 500 or so Trump companies affiliated with the Trump Organization, they connect in New York state, and the New York attorney general — to protect the people of New York and to stand up for the people of the country — has to be the leading voice on this. Eric did not take action.”

Schneiderman did not immediately return a call for comment.

Had Schneiderman taken on the case and lost, it could be both embarrassing personally, as well as a setback in the effort to resist Trump. But Teachout argues that you can’t win if you don’t fight. “A month later, I went back to him saying, Here’s another way to bring the same suit — business law 1101(A) gives special powers to the attorney general of New York to investigate unlawful, ongoing behavior that is against the public policy of the state and harms the general welfare of New York. Use this law,” she said she told him, referring to a New York statute. “And again he did not act.”

Since then, a U.S. District Court in Maryland has said that attorneys general from there and Washington, D.C., have standing to challenge Trump, with a hearing scheduled for June 11. “New York should have been at the center of this case and will be at the center of this case when I’m attorney general,” Teachout said.

As of now, she’s advising the attorneys handling that case.

Teachout, known in legal scholar circles for her work on antitrust law, said that Trump would be a focus of her approach as New York’s top law enforcement official. She added that state law also gives the attorney general significant power in confronting monopoly concentration on behalf of consumers and workers, power that she plans to leverage.

In 2014, Teachout ran for governor in the Democratic primary against Cuomo, surprising the establishment by winning more than 30 percent of the vote. A Fordham University School of Law professor, she ran for Congress in 2016 in upstate New York, losing by 8 points to John Faso in the 19th District. Now, as she revs up her campaign for attorney general ahead of the September 13 primary, she is also pregnant and is due in October. 

Her leading opponent, Letitia James, is the New York City public advocate with a long progressive record, but James has the endorsement of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is currently at war with the left wing of the party. That puts Teachout in the position of the progressive option in the primary. The Working Families Party, which James has been linked with from the start of her career, said Cuomo demanded that James reject the WFP in exchange for his patronage.

The WFP blasted Cuomo for the power trip he played on James, who was first elected to city council running solely on the WFP line.

“It is nothing short of outrageous to see Andrew Cuomo demand Tish James jump through hoops that he would never ask a white man to do,” the party said in a statement. “He is telling her to reject the party where she got her start, and refuse the WFP’s support, which could be critical in both the primary and general elections.” 

A Cuomo spokesperson told the New York Post that it was sexist for the WFP to suggest that James did not make her own decision.

The WFP has backed Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo for governor. Teachout has also endorsed Nixon. 

Top photo: Zephyr Teachout visits volunteers at her campaign office on Nov. 8, 2016, in Hudson, N.Y.

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