Trump set to return to the civil fraud trial that could threaten his business empire

State lawyers are attempting to unravel what they say are years of fraud.

October 17, 2023, 5:06 AM

Former President Donald Trump is expected to return Tuesday to the New York City courtroom where the future of his business empire is being decided.

Trump's three-day attendance two weeks ago at the start of the $250 million civil trial transformed what would normally be slow-paced accounting fraud case into what New York Attorney General Letitia James described as "The Trump Show."

During the court's 15-minute breaks, the former president held impromptu press conferences in the hallway and frequently took to social media to criticize the case against him -- at one point drawing a limited gag order after he posted about the judge's law clerk. Separate from the partial gag order imposed by a federal judge in Washington, D.C., Monday, New York Judge Arthur Engoron's order prohibits Trump or any party from commenting on members of his staff.

Trump's presence appeared to compel his attorneys to embrace a more aggressive courtroom style, objecting so often that it drew the judge's ire -- an approach that seemed to dissipate once Trump left town.

Now the former president returns to a trial that, in his absence, has proceeded with two weeks of potentially damaging testimony.

Trump initially expected to watch the testimony of his former attorney Michael Cohen, whose 2019 congressional testimony served as the catalyst for the attorney general's investigation. Cohen is now expected to testify next week after a medical issue delayed his testimony, so Trump will instead hear testimony from his own accountant, Donna Kidder, and real estate executives who appraised his properties.

What does the attorney general allege?

James' case centers on a decade of Trump's annual balance sheets, known as statements of financial condition, between the years 2011 and 2021.

According to testimony, Trump Organization employees would compile supporting documentation throughout the year to value each of Trump's assets -- including skyscrapers, golf courses and cash on hand. The supporting data was then provided to an outside accounting firm, which would issue Trump's compiled financial statement, according to Trump Organization controller Jeffrey McConney.

James alleges that Trump inflated the value of his assets in these statements not only to increase his net worth -- thereby bumping his ranking on Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans -- but also to obtain more favorable loans, guarantee lower insurance premiums, and satisfy loan conditions tied to his net worth.

Trump listed his net worth as being between $2.5 billion and $3.6 billion during the years of the alleged fraudulent conduct, and James alleges that number was inflated by as much as $2.2 billion.

"The defendants were lying year after year," state attorney Kevin Wallace said during his opening statement at the trial.

Before the trial even began, Judge Arthur Engoron found in a pretrial ruling that Trump's statements included "false and misleading" information.

Among his findings, the judge's ruling found that Trump falsely claimed his penthouse apartment in New York's Trump Tower was three times larger than its actual size, and that Trump overvalued his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida by at least 2,300% in part by ignoring a deed restriction on the property. Trump's lawyers have appealed Engoron's ruling, which they argue was wrongly decided.

The judge left six of James' claims, including whether the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to commit fraud, to be decided at trial -- along with any fine that Trump might be required to pay if the court so determined.

Have witnesses implicated Trump?

Early witnesses in the civil trial have testified about the Trump Organization's accounting procedures and standards.

Accountants from Mazars and Whitley Penn -- accounting firms that previously worked with Trump to issue the financial statements -- testified that Trump Organizations employees were responsible for providing the information on which the statements were based.

When state attorneys confronted Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg and vice president Jeffrey McConney with evidence of incorrect information that had been reported by the firm, they acknowledged that some financial information was false or not properly disclosed.

An executive from Deutsche Bank, which loaned the Trump Organization $378 million over the decade in question, testified that he relied on the financial statements to approve the loans, which were predicated on Trump maintaining a certain net worth.

The executive nevertheless told the court that the loans were "good credit decision" for the bank.

In order to prove liability, the attorney general needs to show that the financial statements were false and misleading, and that they were used to conduct business, according to Engoron's interpretation of Executive Law § 63(12), which the Attorney General used to bring the case.

While Engoron has already found evidence of false statements, it's been unclear from testimony what role Trump himself played in the alleged scheme to defraud.

Weisselberg, who on the stand often struggled to answer questions, citing his lack of memory, ultimately conceded that Trump reviewed some of the financial statements Weisselberg prepared for him in the years before Trump was elected president.

"He might say, 'Don't use the word beautiful, use the word magnificent," Weisselberg said about Trump's occasional feedback.

McConney claimed he did not directly interact with Trump, though he acknowledged that he noted on a 2014 draft compilation of Trump's financial statement, "DJT TO GET FINAL REVIEW."

Trump Organization executive Patrick Birney testified that Weisselberg told him that Trump wanted to see his net worth "go up," supporting the attorney general's claim that Trump "made known through Mr. Weisselberg that he wanted his net worth on the Statements to increase." However, Trump's lawyers have argued that Birney's testimony was hearsay and should be stricken from the record.

What is Trump's strategy?

Since Engoron partially decided the case, Trump's lawyers appear to be reserving their arguments for when they present the meat of their case -- or for a future appeal. They have declined to cross examine multiple witnesses from the Trump Organization.

Defense lawyer Chris Kise told ABC News on Monday that they plan to recall Trump Organization witnesses to hear their testimony later in the trial.

Trump's attorneys have also peppered the record with arguments they intend to litigate in their appeal.

Judge Engoron, for his part, has grown impatient when attorneys have argued against points he has already ruled on.

"This trial is not an opportunity to relitigate what I have already decided ... that is why we have appeals," Engoron said early in the trial.

Trump, in the meantime, has used the trial as an opportunity to fundraise and to highlight what he says is an ongoing injustice being perpetrated against him.

"Our whole system is corrupt. This is corrupt. Atlanta is corrupt, and what's coming out of D.C. is corrupt," Trump told reporters outside the courtroom before departing after the third day of the trial.

When asked by ABC News why he continued to attend the trial despite having no obligation to do so, Trump said he wants to expose what he believes is corruption.

"Why attend? Because I want to point it out to the press how corrupt it, is because nobody else seems to be able to do it," Trump said.

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