ALBANY — New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law Wednesday clearing away legal hurdles that could have prevented state prosecutions of people pardoned by President Donald Trump for federal crimes.
Supporters of the new law, including newly empowered Democrats elected last year, said New York’s broad double jeopardy law didn’t explicitly give state prosecutors a green light to bring charges when a defendant has received a federal pardon. The law says a presidential pardon wouldn’t be sufficient for a member of a president’s family or close associate.
Cuomo, a Democrat, signed the bill months after its May passage was led by Democrats who worried Trump would pardon associates charged amid the probe of Russian election meddling. It also comes days after state prosecutors in New York City asked a judge to reject claims by the defense team for twice-convicted former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort that their mortgage fraud case is double jeopardy.
New York Democrats have argued that the law will ensure that the state’s ongoing investigations into associates of the president can’t be derailed by a White House pardon — a particular concern in a state home to much of world’s business dealings. Republicans, meanwhile, have decried the law as a partisan attack that assumes hypothetical pardons that may never be issued.
“It’s sort of unique to this political moment that we have a president who has so many relationships with individuals, most of whom do a great deal of business in New York and who have been caught up in criminal liability,” former Manhattan prosecutor Rebecca Roiphe said.
But at a time when New York prosecutors are fighting for access to Trump’s financial records, the state’s new law is so specific that it may feed into Trump’s narrative that politically motivated opponents are conducting a campaign of “presidential harassment” against him, according to Roiphe, also a law professor at New York Law School.
Democratic Attorney General Letitia James, who ran on promises to target Trump, championed New York’s new law.
“The narrow drafting tends to play into that — that this is not a general law that New York is passing because it wants to affect some issues with its law,” Roiphe said. “That it’s a law that’s created to enable New York state to go after this particular president.”
Presidents can’t issue pardons for state crimes.
But supporters say New York’s law could keep a president from using federal pardon power to shield associates, and perhaps the president, from liability under state law.
For example, state prosecutors could file criminal charges against associates who could provide information that could be used against the president, according to Ian Farrell, professor of constitutional law at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law.
“The whole point of this law is to prevent a president from saying to his associates: ‘Don’t worry. If you get charged under federal law, I will pardon you, and then you aren’t in danger of any state law charges, so there’s no reason you have to flip,’” Farrell said.
Former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, first raised the alarm about the double jeopardy loophole last year.
The law was passed this year amid speculation that Trump might pardon his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort or former lawyer Michael Cohen .
Both have been convicted of federal crimes.
Manafort is awaiting trial on a New York state mortgage fraud charge that closely mirrors part of his federal case.
Manafort is serving a 7½-year sentence in a Pennsylvania lock-up and has pleaded not guilty to state charges. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr., who announced the charges against Manafort in March, declined comment Wednesday.
Columbia Law School professor Daniel Richman said it’s “far from clear” how exactly New York’s new law would impact Manafort’s case.
“The hypothetical is that the president did pardon Manafort, and New York went forward on a charge or set of charges that until now were covered by New York’s expansive statute,” Richman said.
What happens next would play out in state court, according to Richman, without oversight from federal courts.
The new law — which is effective immediately — applies to future and past offenses as long as the individual hasn’t already been tried or entered a plea. Twenty-four states already have laws making it clear that presidential pardons do not cover state charges, according to Sen. Todd Kaminsky, D-Long Island and the bill’s Senate sponsor.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to request for comment Wednesday.