In a courtroom drama reminiscent of a Shakespearean tragedy, former President Donald Trump took to the witness stand at the civil fraud trial that has gripped the nation, bemoaning perceived injustices and indulging in a verbal ballet that left even the presiding Judge Arthur Engoron contemplating an abrupt intermission.
The stage was set on Monday, as the Trump Organization faced scrutiny over its accounting practices, with the potential for hefty fines and punitive measures that could imperil the very real estate empire that had once catapulted Trump to the zenith of public life.
Engoron, the arbiter of this legal theatre, issued a stern admonition to the former president, who is widely considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination in the forthcoming 2024 election. The judge hinted at curbing Trump’s testimony if he evaded direct responses.
“Can you control your client?” Engoron inquired of Trump’s lawyer, Christopher Kise, in a courtroom that bore no resemblance to a political rally. It was a sanctum of justice, not a stage for polemics.
After a protracted pas de deux between Trump and Engoron, the former president’s testimony drew to a close as the sun dipped into the midafternoon horizon. The next act in this legal saga would be played by Ivanka Trump, the former president’s daughter, who would take her place in the witness box despite her not being a defendant in this unfolding drama.
Over the course of approximately four hours, Trump exhibited a penchant for circumlocution, refraining from straightforward responses while regaling the courtroom with tales of his opulent properties and vast wealth. He cast aspersions upon New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat elected to office, suggesting that her actions were fueled by political ambition, and he accused Engoron of undervaluing his esteemed properties.
“I think this case is a disgrace. Many people are leaving New York because of exactly this kind of thing,” Trump exclaimed. “It’s election interference because you want to keep me in the courthouse.”
The courtroom resounded with escalating voices as both Trump and the judge sparred in a fervent dance. Engoron resolutely reminded all present of the courtroom’s purpose, declaring, “I’m not here to hear what he has to say. I’m here to hear him answer questions. Sit down already,” as he turned his attention to Alina Habba, another member of Trump’s legal team.
It is worth noting that Engoron presides over this trial without the presence of a jury, a fact that underscores the gravity of the matter at hand. In September, the judge rendered a scathing judgment against Trump, his adult sons, and several of his business entities, holding them liable for fraud, primarily for concocting inflated valuations. The spectre of losing control over some of his most iconic properties looms large, although the execution of the order is pending an appeal.
At the core of this riveting legal spectacle are opulent apartment towers and sprawling golf courses, the focal points of a trial that has captured the nation’s attention. Amid the legal fireworks, Trump acknowledged his involvement in the documents underpinning the allegations of fraud. The State of New York contends that Trump’s organization artificially inflated the value of these assets to secure favourable financial terms, misleading lenders, and insurers in the process.
Trump, however, candidly conceded that not all of the estimates were precise. His Mar-a-Lago estate and Doral golf course in Florida, he revealed, had been undervalued, while others, like his Trump Tower residence in New York and his Seven Springs estate to the north, were overvalued. In his defence, Trump argued that these estimates contained disclaimers stating their potential inaccuracies and emphasized that his lender, Deutsche Bank, was more concerned with his available cash reserves. “I’ve had a lot of cash for a long time,” Trump retorted.
The State of New York’s lawsuit contends that these valuations misled financial institutions and insurers, thereby padding Trump’s coffers by over $100 million and inflating his wealth by a staggering $2 billion.
Trump attributed the legal scrutiny to the aftermath of his victory in the 2016 presidential election. He lamented, “I’m sure the judge will rule against me because he always rules against me,” asserting, “This is a very unfair trial, very, very unfair, and I hope the public is watching.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James responded to Trump’s verbal salvos with a stoic demeanour, focusing on the facts and figures. “At the end of the day, the only things that matter are the facts and the numbers. The numbers, my friends, don’t lie,” James declared outside the courthouse.
In a moment of exasperation, Judge Engoron directed Trump’s attorney, Christopher Kise, to provide his client with a refresher on the courtroom’s decorum. “The former and again soon-to-be president of the United States understands the rules,” Kise replied, underscoring the gravity of the proceedings.
Unlike the four criminal cases currently shadowing Trump, this civil trial does not threaten his personal freedom, leaving him free to contemplate a potential return to the White House.
Letitia James seeks $250 million in fines and restrictions that would effectively halt the Trump family’s business activities in New York. The linchpin of James’s case has been the testimony of Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and confidant, who claimed that Trump directed him to manipulate financial statements to bolster his net worth. Evidence also suggests that Trump’s sons, Eric and Donald Jr., who managed the Trump Organization during their father’s tenure in the White House, attempted to tamper with the assessed value of prized properties, including Mar-a-Lago.
The scions of the Trump family asserted their lack of familiarity with the nitty-gritty of valuation documents during their testimonies, instead shifting blame onto accountants for any discrepancies. In Trump’s case, he too pointed to accountants but also conceded some involvement in the valuation process. “I would occasionally have some suggestions,” he conceded.
Engoron had previously penalized Trump with a $15,000 fine for violating a limited gag order to prevent criticism of court personnel. Trump’s legal team chafed at this order and suggested that it could serve as grounds for an appeal. Nevertheless, the judge extended the order on Friday, applying it to the entire legal team.
This litigious whirlwind on Trump’s calendar threatens to divert his attention from the campaign trail for a significant portion of the coming year. Remarkably, despite these mounting legal troubles, opinion polls suggest that Trump maintains a commanding lead in the Republican Party’s presidential nominating contest.
Originally slated to extend into early December, this trial may reach its conclusion sooner than anticipated as the state prepares to call its final witnesses later this week. The nation watches with bated breath as this legal saga unfolds, waiting to see whether the curtain will fall on a former president’s storied real estate empire or mark the beginning of a political resurgence.
Written by Florence Akano, USA Correspondent