Donald Trump returns to a New York court Monday, where he is expected to take the witness stand in a civil fraud trial that threatens to damage the real estate empire that built his reputation before he entered politics.
The former US president, like his two adult sons who testified last week, will likely face pointed questions about questionable accounting practices that a judge has already ruled fraudulent.
New York State lawyers say these methods allowed it to obtain favorable financing terms by increasing the value of its golf courses, apartment towers and other assets at a time when many many lenders refused to do business with him. They claim such activity earned him US$100 million and exaggerated his wealth by US$2 billion.
Trump, 77, has denied any wrongdoing, but the judge in the case ruled in a partial summary judgment before testimony even began that Trump Organization had submitted “fraudulent appraisals.” The week-long trial will determine the extent of damages and the company’s future in New York state, although any verdict will be appealed.
New York Attorney General Letitia James is seeking $250 million in fines, as well as restrictions that would prevent Trump and his sons Eric and Donald Jr. from doing business in their home state.
Evidence presented at trial so far has revealed that company officials, including Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr., were involved in efforts to manipulate the taxable value of trophy properties like the Mar- a-Lago in Florida.
Both sons testified that the organization relied on accountants and lawyers to verify the accuracy of financial documents that Judge Arthur Engoron found to be fraudulent.
One witness, his former president’s lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, said Trump asked him to look at his financial statements to increase his net worth.
Gag order violations
Trump appeared on the witness stand numerous times during his life in his capacity as a real estate baron, casino owner and sports franchise owner. But the last time he did so before this civil trial was in 2013, after an 87-year-old suburban widower sued him over changes to a Chicago hotel’s contract terms and a condominium tower in which she had purchased units as an investment.
Trump has already appeared seven times to watch the proceedings from the dock and complain to television cameras outside the chamber that James, Engoron and others involved in the case were motivated by politics. It also attracted widespread criticism on social media.
This resulted in him being fined US$15,000 for twice violating a limited silence order that prevents him from criticizing court staff. Trump’s lawyers chafed at the order and indicated they might use it as a basis for appeal, but Engoron expanded it Friday to cover them as well.
Trump spoke briefly two weeks ago to explain apparent violations of a hush order, with Engoron commenting that his comments on the subject at hand sounded “hollow and false.”
Unlike the four criminal cases Trump faces, this civil trial does not threaten to put him in prison as he prepares for another presidential campaign. Indeed, Trump has leaned on this experience, using it to solicit campaign donations and claim that he is being targeted because of his political views.
Trump’s busy legal schedule threatens to keep him off the campaign trail for much of next year.
The trial was originally scheduled to run through early December, but could end sooner as the state calls its final witnesses this week. It is unclear how many witnesses the defense will call.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka is scheduled to testify Wednesday, although she is not among the defendants in the case.