A riled Trump sounds off outside fraud trial
NEW YORK (AP):
Aggrieved and defiant, former President Donald Trump sat through hours of sometimes testy opening statements on Monday in a fraud lawsuit that could cost him control of Trump Tower and other prized properties.
“Disgraceful trial,” he declared during a lunch break, after listening to lawyers for New York Attorney General Letitia James excoriate him as a habitual liar. The state’s lawsuit accuses the business mogul-turned-politician and his company of deceiving banks, insurers and others by misstating his wealth for years in financial statements.
“They were lying year after year after year,” Kevin Wallace, a lawyer in James’ office, said as Trump sat at the defence table. He looked straight ahead, arms crossed, facing away from a screen that showed details of Wallace’s presentation.
Defence lawyers, in response, said the financial statements were legitimate. Trump’s holdings are “Mona Lisa properties” that can command top dollar, attorney Alina Habba said.
“That is not fraud. That is real estate,” she said, accusing the attorney general’s office of “setting a very dangerous precedent for all business owners in the state of New York”.
Trump voluntarily attended a trial that he called a “sham”, a “scam” and “a continuation of the single greatest witch-hunt of all time.” Currently, the Republican front-runner in the 2024 presidential race, he reiterated claims that James, a Democrat, is trying to thwart his return to the White House.
“What we have here is an attempt to hurt me in an election,” he said outside court, adding: “I don’t think the people of this country are going to stand for it.”
Trump sneered at James as he passed her on his way out at lunchtime; she, in turn, left smiling. Meanwhile, his campaign immediately began fundraising off the appearance.
Judge Arthur Engoron ruled last week that Trump committed fraud in his business dealings. If upheld on appeal, the ruling could force Trump to give up New York properties, including Trump Tower, a Wall Street office building, golf courses and a suburban estate. Trump has called it “a corporate death penalty” and insisted the judge is unfair and out to get him.
This trial concerns six remaining claims in the lawsuit, including allegations of conspiracy, falsifying business records, and insurance fraud. It is a non-jury trial, which Engoron said was legally required when a suit seeks not only money, but a court order setting out something a defendant must do or not do.
James is seeking $250 million in penalties and a ban on Trump doing business in New York.
“No matter how powerful you are, and no matter how much money you think you have, no one is above the law,” she said on her way into the courthouse.
Trump denies wrongdoing. He says that James and the judge are undervaluing such assets as his Palm Beach, Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, and that it didn’t matter what he put on his financial statements because they had a disclaimer that says they shouldn’t be trusted.
The former president and a who’s who of people in his orbit — his two eldest sons, Trump Organization executives and lawyer-turned-foe Michael Cohen — are all listed among dozens of potential witnesses.
Trump isn’t expected to testify for several weeks. His trip to court on Monday marked a remarkable departure from his past practice.
Trump didn’t go to court as either a witness or a spectator when his company and one of its top executives was convicted of tax fraud last year. He didn’t show, either, for a civil trial earlier this year in which a jury found him liable for sexually assaulting the writer E. Jean Carroll in a department store dressing room.
This time, “I wanted to watch this witch-hunt myself,” he said outside court.
In a recent court filing, James’ office alleged Trump exaggerated his wealth by as much as $3.6 billion.
He claimed his three-storey Trump Tower penthouse, replete with gold-plated fixtures, was nearly three times its actual size and worth $327 million, far more than any New York City apartment ever has fetched, James said. He valued Mar-a-Lago as high as $739 million — more than 10 times a more reasonable estimate of its worth, James maintained.
“Every estimate was determined by Mr Trump,” Wallace said in his opening statement. He pointed to pretrial testimony by Trump Organization figures and ex-insiders, including Cohen, who said the company estimated assets to get to a predetermined number “that Mr Trump wanted”.
Wallace said the alleged scheme got the company better loan rates, saving it $100 million in interest.
“They hid their weaknesses and convinced these banks to take on hundreds of millions of dollars in risk,” he said, adding: “While the defendants can exaggerate to Forbes magazine or on television, they cannot do it while conducting business in the state of New York.”
Trump lawyer Christopher Kise said defence experts will testify that assigning values to properties is, by nature, a matter of opinion.
“There is no such thing as objective valuation,” Kise said in an opening statement.
Any discrepancies in values don’t amount to fraud, he said, and disclaimers on the financial statements made clear that these were estimates and that banks would have to perform their own analysis.