Donald Trump was in the courtroom Monday for the beginning of the New York attorney general’s $250 million civil fraud trial against him, his company and two of his children — a case that could have widespread implications for the former president’s businesses.
Trump, who was not required to attend the trial, sat with his arms crossed for most of AG attorney Kevin Wallace’s presentation to Judge Arthur Engoron, occasionally tapping his foot. The trial puts Trump’s business acumen into focus as the AG’s office seeks to portray the image-fixated ex-president as a fraud who intentionally overstated his successes.
After opening statements were done, Trump walked out of the courtroom, shooting an angry glare at Attorney General Letitia James.
“We’re going to be here for months with a judge that already made up his mind. It’s ridiculous,” Trump complained to reporters during the lunch break, amping up his attacks on Engoron, whose rulings could cost Trump’s company hundreds of millions of dollars and affect its ability to do business in New York.
“This is a judge that should be disbarred. This is a judge that should be out of office. This is a judge that some people say could be charged criminally for what he’s doing. He’s interfering with an election, and it’s a disgrace,” Trump said.
In his opening statement, Wallace told Engoron that Trump and officials at his company had engaged in “persistent illegal acts” with overly inflated financial statements with values that were “determined by Donald Trump.”
He said Trump overvalued his financial statements by $812 million to $2.2 billion, knew that they were false and used them to obtain loans at terms he was not entitled to and other benefits.
Trump tried to blame former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg for the financial certifications at his deposition in the case, Wallace said, but “he was lying.”
The civil trial kicks off what might be a series of courtroom appearances by Trump, who also faces criminal charges in four different jurisdictions, including two cases in connection with his bid to overturn the 2020 election. Trump has sought to paint all of his legal woes as political retribution and an effort to keep him from returning to power as he holds on to the lead in the Republican primary campaign.
Trump’s attorney Christopher Kise said in his opening statement that the evidence would show Trump “made many billions of dollars being right about real estate investments” and built “one of the most successful real estate empires in the world” and “one of the most successful brands.”
He told the judge that valuations are subjective and noted that Trump never defaulted on any of the loans. “There was no fraud,” Kise said. “President Trump did not make any false statements.”
The no-jury trial in Manhattan, which is expected to last about three months, concluding by Dec. 22, will be decided by Engoron.
Kise was followed by combative Trump attorney Alina Habba, who has clashed with Engoron in the past. Habba called former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, one of the AG’s witnesses, a “liar,” suggested James’ investigation was politically motivated and complained that James was undervaluing Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida club, which she said is “worth at least a billion dollars.”
The AG’s office said its value is closer to $75 million.
Habba also complained that Trump “did want a jury” to hear the case, but Engoron noted that his team had never asked for a jury trial.
The first witness called by the AG’s office was Donald Bender, Trump’s former accountant. Bender testified at last year’s criminal tax fraud trial against two Trump Organization companies that were ultimately convicted and fined $1.6 million.
Bender testified Monday about how he would compile Trump’s financial statements — the documents the AG said had inflated values. Bender said he used information that was sent to him from the company to put them together. Though Bender was speaking in fairly dry technical terms, many in the courtroom seemed to be enthralled.
As the testimony went on through the afternoon, Trump appeared agitated at times, his face beet red while he whispered to his attorneys.
His demeanor changed at the end of the court day, when Engoron told the AG’s office some of Bender’s testimony was redundant and needed to be tied into contracts within the statute of limitations in the case to be considered relevant.
Kise stood up and said he agreed, and Trump gave two thumbs up.
Bender’s testimony will resume Tuesday morning.
Earlier, Trump addressed the media outside the courtroom as he arrived for the trial at 10 a.m., attacking James and accusing her of having filed the case to damage him politically.
“They’re trying to damage me so I don’t do as well as I’m doing,” said Trump, who is the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Engoron recently sided in part with James’ office, finding that Trump committed repeated acts of fraud for years that included lying to banks and insurers by both overvaluing and undervaluing his assets and exaggerating his net worth by billions of dollars.
Trump’s arguments to defend the fraudulent statements are based in “a fantasy world, not the real world,” Engoron wrote in a 35-page ruling last week.
The ruling, which allowed the case to go to trial this week, will also have practical repercussions for Trump’s numerous limited liability companies, or LLCs. The order set in motion a dissolution process for entities like Trump Organization LLC, which has helped expand the Trump brand over the years.
The outstanding issues in the case, beyond what Engoron ruled on last week, will be resolved at trial.
Kise has called the ruling “outrageous” and said he planned to appeal.
Trump has repeatedly disparaged Engoron, including as recently as Sunday night, when he called Engoron a “Trump Hating Judge who is unfair, unhinged, and vicious in his PURSUIT of me” in a post on Truth Social.
Trump confirmed Sunday on Truth Social that he would be in the courtroom for the opening of the trial “to fight for my name and reputation.” He is expected to attend the first two days of the proceedings.
James was in the courtroom Monday for the beginning of the trial. Trump did not acknowledge her as he walked in, followed by his son Eric. Before he entered, Trump criticized James directly in remarks in the hallway, calling her a “corrupt attorney general.”
“Everything was perfect. There was no crime. The crime is against me,” Trump said in the courthouse, where Walt Nauta, his aide and co-defendant on federal charges that he mishandled classified documents, was in his entourage.
James said in a statement ahead of the trial: “No matter how rich or powerful you are, there are not two sets of laws for people in this country. The rule of law must apply equally to everyone, and it is my responsibility to make sure that it does.”
She told reporters on her way into court that “no one is above the law, and it is my responsibility and my duty and my job to enforce it.”
Trump and three of his children — Don Jr. and Eric, who are senior executives in the Trump Organization, and his daughter Ivanka — are among the 28 witnesses the AG’s office plans to call.
Weisselberg, the company’s former chief financial officer, is also set to take the stand, in addition to Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer.
Weisselberg testified against the Trump Organization at a criminal trial last year and was sentenced to five months in jail in connection with his role in the company’s 15-year tax fraud scheme. The Trump Organization was convicted on 17 counts related to conspiracy, criminal tax fraud and falsifying business records, and it was hit with $1.6 million in fines.
This article was originally published on NBCNews.com
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