Trump set to testify in New York fraud trial with business empire at stake

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Trump set to testify in New York fraud trial with business empire at stake

Donald Trump and lawyers from New York Attorney General Letitia James’s (D) office will face off this week when the former president is expected to take the stand in the fraud case jeopardizing his business empire.

His testimony marks an unprecedented turn in U.S. history where a former president and current White House candidate must defend himself on trial and in the shadow of a host of other legal troubles. However, that seems to have had little effect among GOP primary voters throwing their support behind Trump, who is consistently polling with double-digit leads ahead of his challengers among that contingent of likely voters.

Still, the former president’s fury over the probe into his business has been on full display — both online and in fiery stump speeches in the Manhattan courthouse’s hallways — throughout which he has derided James as “corrupt,” “racist” and complicit in “prosecutorial misconduct.” 

At stake are Trump’s business licenses and the potential for him to lose control of some of his famed properties — not to mention hundreds of millions of dollars in financial penalties as requested by the New York attorney general’s office. His career as a Manhattan real estate and business mogul is part of what propelled him to the White House in 2016.

James’s office sued Trump, some of his adult children and their business last year for $250 million, claiming they falsely inflated and deflated the value of the Trump Organization’s assets to receive lower taxes and better insurance coverage.

Before the trial even began, Judge Arthur Engoron found Trump, the Trump Organization and other defendants in the case, including Trump’s two eldest sons, liable for fraud. Trump’s legal team has appealed that decision.

Trump has displayed his frustration throughout the trial by shaking his head, whispering to his attorneys during testimony and staring daggers into his rivals. At one point, after Engoron issued a ruling against him, Trump stormed out of the courtroom in a huff.

Trump’s testimony over his business dealings could prove just as contentious.

“One of the challenges for the lawyers in this case is … making him neither the kingmaker nor the victim,” said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University. “He is another businessman in New York who has to comply with the rules and didn’t.” 

Lawyers from James’s office will likely be looking at Trump’s testimony for information on who is responsible for the Trump Organization’s fraud, Levenson said.

“The judge found fraud; the question is, who’s the one most directly involved in the fraud and what is the amount of the fraud?” she said. “To the extent that Trump is inflating numbers or deflating numbers, I think that can become pretty clear by an examination of him.”

The former president’s legal team has so far attempted to place the blame on accountants involved in calculating the Trump Organization’s statements of financial condition for the skewed numbers reported. Nearly the full first week of trial was dedicated to a harsh cross-examination of Donald Bender, Trump’s ex-accountant.

On Wednesday, Trump’s eldest son testified that he signed off on his father’s financial statements — documents core to the New York attorney general’s case — but relied on the work of accountants and Trump Organization executives, like then-Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg. Weisselberg is also a defendant in the case. 

“As a trustee, I have an obligation to listen [to] those who are expert — who have an expertise of these things,” Donald Trump Jr. said, according to The Associated Press.

Shifting the blame to everywhere but himself and his family members could prove “problematic” as the Trump family’s accountants point the finger back in their direction, Levenson said. But it’s similar to the strategy Trump has taken in several of his criminal cases.

Trump’s legal team has blamed his lawyers and advisers for strategies meant to overturn his 2020 election loss in both the federal and state criminal cases tied to those actions. Three of Trump’s former lawyers have taken guilty pleas in the Georgia case, but at this point, it’s unclear whether their future testimony against him will undermine his efforts to shift the blame.

The former president’s other legal woes make his testimony in the fraud case particularly precarious — perhaps most notably in the New York criminal case, where he faces charges of falsifying business records. 

During Michael Cohen’s testimony last month, two attorneys from Trump’s legal team in that criminal case — which revolves around a hush money payment Trump’s ex-fixer and personal attorney made on his behalf — were present in the courtroom, taking notes.

Any of Trump’s remarks made under oath could come back to haunt him in his other cases, meaning his legal team will likely be on high alert throughout the testimony. 

“This is a preview for the prosecutors in the other cases coming up,” Levenson said. “How do you push his buttons? Where’s his breaking point?”

During a brief stint on the witness stand last month, Trump maintained his composure, adopting a somber demeanor and quiet voice while under questioning by Engoron. The trial judge had accused Trump of violating a gag order barring the former president and other parties in the case from speaking about the judge’s staff.

Engoron asked Trump whether he made a comment to reporters calling him a “very partisan judge with a person who is very partisan sitting alongside him, perhaps even more partisan than he is.” The comment, Engoron suggested, referred to his principal law clerk who was seated to his right. 

Trump listened to the judge intently and gave terse responses to his questions.

“Yes,” Trump replied, nodding his head affirmatively.

“To whom were you referring?” Engoron asked.

“You and Cohen,” Trump replied, referring to his former fixer.

“Are you sure that you didn’t mean the person on the other side, my principal law clerk?” Engoron asked.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Trump said.

Trump’s testimony Monday, however, will mark the first time the former president is publicly questioned by the New York attorney general’s office, whose direct examination will likely be much thornier than the judge’s. Kevin Wallace, a nearly six-year veteran of the New York attorney general’s office, is expected to lead Trump’s questioning.

The political messaging that has echoed across Trump’s various legal matters as he mounts his 2024 White House bid briefly seeped into his short testimony last month when he said he believes the judge’s clerk — who has actively engaged with Engoron throughout the case — is “very biased against us.”

Levenson said it’s likely he’ll continue to use that language both in and outside the courtroom to further his case. 

“We’ve got the court inside the courtroom and the court of public opinion, and they may not actually match,” she said. “In the courtroom, he may not do so well on the witness stand. But I can promise you, whatever happens, by the time they get outside the courtroom, it’s either that he was brilliant or he wasn’t treated fairly. That’s going to be the narrative.”