3 things to know about Trump's defense in his New York civil fraud trial

Trump's defense attorneys rested their case Tuesday.

December 12, 2023, 5:15 PM

Donald Trump was nearly halfway through his testimony in his civil fraud trial last month when he pulled a rumpled note from his jacket.

"I would love to read this, Your Honor, if I could. Am I allowed to do that?" Trump asked the judge, waiving the folded note in the air.

"No, not at this point," Judge Arthur Engoron responded, to Trump's apparent irritation.

The note that Trump was not allowed to read at the time -- about the disclaimer causes in his statements of financial condition -- has underpinned his defense in a case where he and his sons stand accused of defrauding lenders and enriching themselves by roughly $375 million.

After four weeks of defense testimony, Donald Trump's lawyers are set to rest their case Tuesday after calling 19 witnesses -- including experts who Trump paid a total of at least $2.5 million.

The former president faces an uphill battle after Judge Engoron, in a pretrial partial summary judgment ruling, found Trump liable for using fraudulent statements to conduct business.

"I am sure the judge will rule against me, because he always rules against me," Trump complained when he testified last month, adding on social media that Engoron will likely find him "guilty as hell."

PHOTO: Trump Fraud Lawsuit
Former President Donald Trump, center, sits at the defense table with his attorney's Christopher Kise, left, and Alina Habba, at New York Supreme Court, Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez, Pool)
Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AP

But the former president has embraced a more optimistic tone in recent weeks, touting the testimony of the defense's accounting expert and declaring that his firm "did nothing wrong" when he announced Sunday that he no longer planned to testify in his own defense the next day.

Here are three of the main arguments Trump's team has presented in his defense.

Trump's 'worthless clause'

Trump's lawyers have repeatedly touted a section of his financial statements that Trump refers to as his "worthless clause."

"It says, very strongly, 'Do your own due diligence. Do your own work. Do your own study. Don't take anything from this statement for granted,'" Trump testified during the state's case last month.

Trump's lawyers have used this disclaimer in an attempt to insulate Trump from any alleged wrongdoing, since he warned his lenders that the statements might be incorrect -- an argument reinforced by testimony from defense experts.

"I never saw anything that is clearer than that. Even my nine-year-old granddaughter Emma would understand this language," the defense's accounting expert, Eli Bartov, testified about Trump's disclaimer. Another expert, Jason Flemmons, said that Trump disclosed that 95% of his financial statement departed from generally accepted accounting principles.

However, Engoron has generally been dismissive of Trump's disclaimer argument, as he stated in his partial summary judgment.

"Defendants' reliance on these 'worthless' disclaimers is worthless. The clause does not use the words 'worthless' or 'useless' or 'ignore' or 'disregard' or any similar words," Engoron wrote.

While Engoron has repeatedly indicated that he stands by his ruling, he nevertheless signaled some flexibility after Bartov strongly defended Trump's use of disclaimers.

"I am fairly liberal in reconsidering my opinions," Engoron said.

'No evidence' of a conspiracy

Trump's lawyers have argued that state attorneys have failed to prove their allegation that the former president engaged in a conspiracy to inflate his net worth.

"There is no evidence in the record of agreement -- a fundamental premise to support the conspiracy claims," Trump attorney Chris Kise argued in court.

Defense lawyers highlighted that former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, the state's main witness who claimed Trump directed him to inflate his net worth, cannot be trusted due to his history of false testimony.

"He was caught lying like no one has ever lied. It was better than a Perry Mason moment, and that should be the end of the case," Trump said after defense lawyers Alina Habba and Clifford Robert cross-examined Cohen.

Patrick Birney, a Trump Organization vice president, also testified that he received direction from then-CFO Allen Weisselberg to increase Trump's net worth -- but when he was recalled as a defense witness, Birney clarified that he never increased the values in Trump's financial statement without having evidence to support the change.

'Happy' bankers

A central pillar of Trump's defense has been the claim that his lenders were happy to do business with the former president, despite his allegedly inflated valuations.

Former Deutsche Bank managing director Rosemary Vrablic testified that the bank was eager to get Trump's business, courting him in order to earn millions in interest and fees from his loans. Defense expert Robert Unell testified that even if Trump's net worth was a fraction of what he claimed, he would have still qualified for his loans.

Unell added that the bank's internal valuation group determined that Trump overstated his net worth by roughly $2.4 billion when they decided to offer him loans -- suggesting that whatever inflated valuations that existed were not relevant to lenders.

Engoron, however, cast doubt on the viability of that argument, suggesting that pleasing his lenders does not clear Trump of wrongdoing.

"The mere fact that the lenders were happy doesn't mean the statute wasn't violated," Engoron said in court.

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