Donald Trump came face to face with his adult sons, his former lieutenants and even himself as the first day of his civil fraud trial began in dramatic fashion in a Manhattan court on Monday.
The opening argument delivered by Kevin Wallace, a lawyer for New York’s attorney general, featured clips from recent video depositions of Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr and Allen Weisselberg, the former chief financial officer for the Trump Organization who served a five-month jail term after being convicted of tax fraud.
In perhaps the most surreal moment of the morning, the former US president, who attended the proceedings in person, peered into a video monitor to watch his own testimony from April, in which he was asked under oath whether Mr Weisselberg was responsible for ensuring that his personal financial statements complied with generally accepted accounting principles: “I would say, yes,” Mr Trump replied in the videotaped deposition.
“Were you lying then or are you lying now?” Mr Wallace said on Monday.
The judge presiding over the trial, Arthur Engoron, last week ruled the former president and his fellow co-defendants had for years committed persistent fraud by inflating the value of his assets. He ordered that Mr Trump’s companies be stripped of their business certificates in New York, and receivers be appointed to oversee their dissolution.
The trial that began on Monday will consider additional charges brought by Letitia James, the New York attorney general, including insurance fraud and falsification of business records. It will also determine what financial penalties Mr Trump will pay, if any, and whether or not he and his co-defendants will be permitted to again operate a business in New York.
As the case is a civil matter, there is no threat of prison time for the former president but his business empire is at risk of being dismantled.
Mr Trump entered the courtroom on Monday morning with an annoyed expression on his face. He was wearing a dark suit with a blue shirt and tie. His son, Eric, took a seat in the first row of the gallery behind him. Mr Trump, meanwhile, fixed his gaze on Judge Engoron, whom he has previously disparaged as “deranged”.
Folksy and avuncular, Judge Engoron appeared unbothered, describing himself in self-deprecating terms as “a generalist” who knew a little about a lot of things.
In his opening statement, Mr Wallace argued the former president and his co-defendants had knowingly lied about his net worth – inflating it by as much as $2.2 billion per year – in order to secure bank loans on advantageous terms from Deutsche Bank and other lenders.
“The defendants knew that a high net worth was necessary to obtain and maintain certain financial benefits,” Mr Wallace said, estimating the lower interest rates had saved the Trumps tens of millions of dollars a year.
At one point, Mr Wallace played a video deposition of Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s former personal lawyer, in which he explained the methodology for calculating the former president’s net worth. “It was basically backing in numbers ... to obtain the number Mr Trump wanted,” Mr Cohen said.
In another video, a smiling Donald Trump Jr testified that he knew little about generally accepted accounting principles – beyond the fact that they were “generally accepted”.
Christopher Kise, Mr Trump’s lawyer, insisted in his rebuttal that the former president’s statements of financial conditions “were true and accurate in all material respects” and that there had been no intent to defraud.
“There are many ways to value assets and all are accurate even if they give different results,” Mr Kise said, arguing “current market value” was not the only way to assess a property.
Mr Kise noted Mr Trump’s statements contained ample disclaimers, and that Deutsche had carried out its own examination of the assets. He dismissed Mr Cohen – who was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading guilty to various offences, including a scheme to arrange payments just before the 2016 presidential election to silence two women who claimed to have had affairs with Mr Trump – as a serial liar.
Mr Kise also defended his client’s business acumen, saying: “President Trump has made billions of dollars building one of the most successful real estate empires in the world.”
As the arguments proceeded, Mr Trump appeared stern. He occasionally folded his arms across his chest and conferred with his lawyers. “This is a continuation of the single greatest witch hunt of all time”, he said as he arrived at the courthouse in Manhattan.
Outside the courtroom Mr Trump raged against Judge Engoron and Ms James, the New York attorney general, who was present for opening arguments. He called Ms James a “horror show, who ran [for election] on the basis that she was going to get Trump before she even knew anything about me”.
The trial is scheduled to last until late December. It is but one legal proceeding that will consume the former president as he campaigns for a return to the White House.
He also facesi criminal charges for his alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election result, and for his handling of classified government documents after he left office. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023