The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The two Howard University women on Trump’s trail

New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks Feb. 17 in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

A voice might be heard wailing in the environs of Mar-a-Lago: “What did I ever do to Howard University?”

Conspiratorially tinged, perhaps, but think about it:

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who has filed a civil suit alleging fraudulent financial practices against former president Donald Trump, three of his children and the Trump Organization, is a Howard University Law School alumna. Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis, who is conducting a state criminal investigation into possible interference with the 2020 election by Trump and his confederates, is a Howard University graduate.

That academic coincidence has no direct bearing on the two probes staring Trump in the face. He earned a front-and-center spot all by himself.

James’s suit was built on a 3½-year investigation that started when Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, told Congress about alleged shady and possibly unlawful dealings by Trump.

James charged that Trump engaged in more than a decade of deception. She said he “falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to unjustly enrich himself and to cheat the system, thereby cheating all of us.” Her suit seeks about $250 million in allegedly illegal profits gained from the scheme. And she wants Trump, Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump banned for five years from participating in any real estate transactions.

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If that weren’t enough, James said her investigation came across sufficient evidence of law violations to file a criminal referral to federal prosecutors in Manhattan and a separate tax-fraud referral to the IRS covering the same evidence. Now it’s up to the feds.

Trump’s response is the same as he’s said repeatedly: It’s all politics and a Democratic Party vendetta to scare him out of running for office. His lawyer said James’s filing “is solely focused on advancing the Attorney General’s political agenda.” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that “the bulls--- Dem witch-hunt continues.”

The New York attorney general has heard it all before. Along with Trump’s rants, she has had large brickbats thrown her way by New York’s former Democratic governor, Andrew M. Cuomo.

To recall: James investigated and found that Cuomo had sexually harassed multiple former and current government employees. Shortly after James reported the investigation’s findings, Cuomo resigned.

Now, to rescue his shipwrecked reputation, Cuomo has filed a state ethics complaint against James, charging her with deliberately bungling the probe. And he echoed an attack heard in Trump’s quarters: “James cynically manipulated a legal process for personal, political gain.”

Cuomo’s complaint and James’s charges against Trump et al. have yet to be heard. But she may have disclosed what drives her work in the Trump and Cuomo cases in what she said during a keynote address to the Howard University Law School class of 2021. “My time as a [Howard] Bison laid the foundation for the work I am doing today because I learned,” she said, “to stand up, fight back and always speak truth to power.”

Trump and Cuomo are getting a taste of that.

Trump is also getting a bad taste down South. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, has warned that at least 17 people are being investigated as part of her 2020 election probe. She said her team has collected evidence suggesting serious crimes were committed in attempts to overturn the 2020 election results, and “if indicted and convicted, people are facing prison sentences.” Those targeted include Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others who allegedly were part of a plot to create false documents declaring that Trump beat Joe Biden in Georgia in 2020. Subpoenas have been flying like confetti. While Willis won’t say whether she intends to charge Trump in connection with the probe, she said he could be forced to testify in front of a special grand jury. She won’t decide, she said, until possibly “late this fall.”

Which has prompted Trump to denounce Willis’s probe as a “political witch hunt.”

He said, “the District Attorney there is spending almost all her waking hours … on attempting to prosecute a very popular president Donald J. Trump.”

Trump, as usual, is off base.

In nearly 20 years as a prosecutor, Willis has led more than 100 jury trials and handled hundreds of murder cases. She has a conviction rate of close to 90 percent, according to the New York Times.

To Trump, Willis might represent a threat. To metro Atlanta gangs, she is a living terror. Willis recently arrested 26 people in gang-related activity. She put it bluntly: “We have a message: Get out of this county or expect to start seeing sentences that go life plus because I am not going to negotiate with gang members. I am not going to allow pleas. We are going to find you. We are going to convict you, and we’re going to send you to prison for the rest of your days. And I’m not apologizing for that.” That kind of language would have some D.C. Council members fleeing the room in tears.

The Fulton County prosecutor isn’t fixated on Trump. Willis, steeped in the Howard tradition of social justice and public service, is simply an equal opportunity crime fighter.

Full disclosure: As graduates, my wife, Gwen, and I are part of Howard’s long history of producing advocates and architects of social change. But that also allows me to tell you from firsthand experience that the foundation James speaks of is made of strong stuff. Trump thinks he holds the power. We’ll see whether it withstands the truth that is coming his way.