Donald Trump returned Monday to a New York courtroom, this time to testify in a civil fraud trial that threatens to erode the real estate empire that forged his reputation before he entered politics. He took the stand determined to protect his brand — that of the powerful, self-made real estate magante — which carried him to the presidency in 2016 and could do so again in 2024. Like his two eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric last week, the former president responded to questions regarding financial documents by the Trump Organization that the judge in the case, Arthur Engoron, already declared were fraudulently filed. According to New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, Trump and other defendants manipulated the financial statements to defraud banks and insurers in a scheme that latest a decade, between 2011 and 2021, including his time in the presidency. During that period, Trump inflated his net worth by as much as $2.2 billion and made millions in profit.
Under oath, Trump denounced the “political warfare” he says he is being subjected to by the Democrats. Earlier in the day, before heading to the Manhattan courthouse, he criticized Judge Engoron and prosecutor James on social media and, before entering the courtroom, claimed that the case is an attempt to undermine his 2024 presidential bid. “It’s political warfare, as you would call it, or political lawfare,” he said as he entered the courtroom.
On the stand, he repeated the argument put forward by his two sons that the irregularities are due to the external accounting firm that drafted the reports, and that, in the specific case of the Mar-a-Lago property, one of those under investigation, he thought it was “very underestimated, but I didn’t do anything about it.” The former president explained that, in general, he felt that his assets were undervalued on his financial statements.
The length of Trump’s answers exasperated Judge Engoron, who, addressing one of the defense lawyers, reminded him that they were in a courtroom, “not at a political rally.” The judge asked lawyer Christopher Kise to “control” his client.
The Trump Organization — which, like the former president, his two eldest sons and top company executives, is accused of committing fraud — inflated the value of golf courses, apartment towers and other assets at a time when many lenders were refusing to do business with him, according to the judge. The Republican front-runner for the White House in 2024 has denied wrongdoing.
Unlike the four criminal cases Trump is facing, the fraud suit doesn’t carry the prospect of prison. It could, however, cost him a $250 million fine, which attorney general James is asking for, and, above all, it could damage his reputation, as well as his company’s. The former president could also be permanently barred from running a business in New York, the heart of his real estate empire. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, who has not been charged, is scheduled to testify on Wednesday.
Trump has made a virtue out of contrariness, taking advantage of every indictment or judicial setback to solicit donations for his campaign, claiming that he is being prosecuted for his political views. Attorney general James is a Democrat, as is Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who in April brought the first indictment against the former president for the alleged payment of a bribe to porn actress Stormy Daniels to cover up an extramarital affair. In light of this, Trump has continually presented himself as the victim of a political witch hunt, which his supporters eat up. At the start of the civil trial, on October 2, he called New York Democrats “corrupt tyrants.”
It seems that victimhood is working for him, both in fundraising for his campaign and in voting intentions: the Republican is leading the polls in five of the six swing states, which will be decisive in deciding the presidency in 2024. Biden is only ahead in one of the six decisive states, according to a poll released Sunday.
Evidence presented in the civil trial so far has revealed that company executives, including Trump’s two eldest sons, manipulated the appraised value of iconic family properties, such as the Mar-a-Lago mansion in Florida, where Trump allegedly withheld classified documents taken from the White House after his presidency, according a federal indictment. A key witness, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, testified that Trump ordered him to falsify financial statements to inflate his net worth. In fact, the fraud investigation began precisely after Cohen testified before Congress in 2019 that Trump and his employees had manipulated his net worth to suit their interests.
Attorney general James established the Trump Organization’s pattern of inflating the value of the company’s properties in documents filed with lenders, insurers and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). In September 2022, James’ office rebuffed a settlement offer from Trump’s lawyers. Days later, she filed a lawsuit against Trump and his family business, accusing them of a sweeping pattern of fraudulent business practices. The trial began on October 2, after a New York appeals court rejected the former president’s maneuvers to delay the proceeding. The decision came after the judge overseeing the case concluded that Trump persistently committed fraud by inflating the value of his assets and stripped him of control over some of his iconic New York properties, including Trump Tower, the symbol of his empire.
Trump’s irritation has been evident throughout the trial, and his angry outbursts in court have earned him $15,000 in fines for violating — on two occasions — a gag order that prevents him from criticizing judicial body personnel. He has also ridiculed his legal opponents as “racists” and “deranged” during his rallies and on social media. Although his presence in court had not been required until this Monday, he has already appeared several times, with obvious gestures of disdain. He has also repeatedly taken advantage of the television cameras at the entrance to the courthouse to denounce the political persecution he claims to be subjected to. On Friday, Judge Engoron extended the gag order to the Trump family’s lawyers.
During the next year, Trump’s busy court schedule will interfere with his election campaign. The civil trial in New York trial was scheduled to run through early December, but could end sooner if the state calls its final witnesses to testify later this week. It is unclear how many witnesses the defense will call.
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