New York (AFP) - New York State filed suit Thursday against President Donald Trump, his sons and daughter, alleging a pattern of "persistently illegal conduct" at their family foundation and seeking the charity's dissolution.
The lawsuit, filed on Trump's 72nd birthday, marked a new addition to the legal woes facing the White House, ranging from lawsuits from two women claiming affairs with Trump, to the sprawling probe into his campaign's ties with Russia.
But while it carries the threat of multi-million dollar financial penalties, and the closure of the charity, the civil lawsuit is unlikely to lead to criminal charges against the president or his children, or to strengthen the case of those seeking his impeachment.
The suit accuses the Donald J. Trump foundation of "extensive unlawful political coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing transactions to benefit Mr. Trump's personal and business interests, and violations of basic legal obligations for non-profit foundations."
It says the real estate tycoon elected president in 2016 used charity funds from the foundation to pay his legal bills, promote his Trump-branded hotels, and for personal spending -- including the ostensible charity purchase of a portrait of Trump that was then mounted on the wall at one of his golf clubs.
The lawsuit also claims Trump used the foundation illegally to raise $2.8 million to support his presidential campaign in a televised fundraiser on January 28, 2016 -- held as he skipped a Republican presidential primary debate.
Trump quickly responded with tweets in which he called the suit a "ridiculous case" and indicated he will fight it.
He accused "sleazy New York Democrats" of "doing everything they can to sue me on a foundation that took in $18,800,000 and gave out to charity more money than it took in, $19,200,000."
"I won't settle this case!" he said.
Legal attacks mount
The suit added to multiple legal challenges confronting Trump, newly returned from a ground-breaking summit in Singapore with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which the White House hopes will lead to Kim giving up his nuclear weapons.
Trump is facing possible allegations of obstruction of justice from Russia collusion investigator Robert Mueller, and his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen is also under investigation in New York for issues that could relate both to Trump's businesses and to the Russia probe.
The suit names the president, sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, and daughter Ivanka Trump, who were on the board of the foundation.
It seeks restitution of $2.8 million and the shutdown of the foundation, as well as a 10-year ban on Trump serving on the board of any other New York charity. A one-year ban is sought for his three children.
It also recommends the Internal Revenue Service investigate the foundation -- which provides Trump with an avenue for tax writeoffs -- over tax violations.
"As our investigation reveals, the Trump Foundation was little more than a checkbook for payments from Mr. Trump or his businesses to nonprofits, regardless of their purpose or legality," said New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood.
"This is not how private foundations should function and my office intends to hold the foundation and its directors accountable for its misuse of charitable assets," she said in a statement.
Settling private lawsuits
The lawsuit paints a picture of regular misuse of foundation funds, which were allocated by Trump himself for years. It alleges that Trump's actions were "willful and knowing," having been caught out for illegal payments multiple times and forced to correct or make amends.
That included the January 2016 charity event which the Trump campaign, using the foundation, put on for veterans. About half the money raised, $2.8 million, was directed by campaign staff -- not foundation staff -- to be moved through the foundation to boost Trump's image.
Other alleged abuses included providing foundation funds to a Florida political campaign; settling a 2007 lawsuit between the City of Palm Beach and Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, and settling a lawsuit by a golfer who took part in a Trump-sponsored charity event in 2012.
Illustrating the poor management of the foundation, of which Trump was president until moving into the White House in January 2017, the lawsuit said its board had not met since 1999.