Trump sounds off outside New York trial

NEW YORK (AP) — Aggrieved and defiant, former President Donald Trump sat through hours of sometimes testy opening arguments Monday in a fraud lawsuit that could cost him control of some of his most prized properties.

“Disgraceful trial,” he declared during a lunch break, after listening to lawyers for New York Attorney General Letitia James excoriate him as a habitual liar. The state’s lawsuit accuses the business-mogul-turned-politician and his company of deceiving banks, insurers and others by misstating his wealth for years in financial statements.

“They were lying year after year after year,” Kevin Wallace, a lawyer in James’ office, said as Trump sat at the defense table. He looked straight ahead, arms crossed, facing away from a screen that showed details of Wallace’s presentation.

Defense lawyers, in response, said the financial statements were legitimate. Trump’s holdings are “Mona Lisa properties” that can command top dollar, attorney Alina Habba said.

“That is not fraud. That is real estate,” she said, accusing the attorney general’s office of “setting a very dangerous precedent for all business owners in the state of New York.”

Trump voluntarily attended a trial that he called “a continuation of the single greatest witch hunt of all time.” Currently the Republican front-runner in the 2024 presidential race, he reiterated claims that James, a Democrat, is trying to thwart his return to the White House.

“It’s a scam. It’s a sham,” Trump said outside court. He called the case “an attempt to hurt me in an election” and added: “I don’t think the people of this country are going to stand for it.”

Trump sneered at James as he passed her on his way out at lunchtime; she, by turn, left smiling. Meanwhile, his campaign immediately began fundraising off the appearance.

Judge Arthur Engoron ruled last week that Trump committed fraud in his business dealings. If upheld on appeal, the ruling could force Trump to give up New York properties including Trump Tower, a Wall Street office building, golf courses and a suburban estate.

Trump has called it a “a corporate death penalty” and insisted the judge is unfair and out to get him.

This trial concerns six remaining claims in the lawsuit, including allegations of conspiracy, falsifying business records and insurance fraud. It is a non-jury trial, which Engoron said was legally required when a suit seeks not only money but a court order setting out something a defendant must do or not do.

James is seeking $250 million in penalties and a ban on Trump doing business in New York.

“No matter how powerful you are, and no matter how much money you think you have, no one is above the law,” she said on her way into the courthouse.

Trump denies wrongdoing. He says that James and the judge are undervaluing such assets as his Palm Beach, Florida, resort, Mar-a-Lago, and that it didn’t matter what he put on his financial statements because they had a disclaimer that says they shouldn’t be trusted.

The former president and a who’s who of people in his orbit — his two eldest sons, Trump Organization executives and lawyer-turned-foe Michael Cohen — are all listed among dozens of potential witnesses.

Trump isn’t expected to testify for several weeks. His trip to court Monday marked a remarkable departure from his past practice.

Tump didn’t go to court as either a witness or a spectator when his company and one of its top executives was convicted of tax fraud last year. He didn’t show, either, for a civil trial earlier this year in which a jury found him liable for sexually assaulting the writer E. Jean Carroll in a department store dressing room.

James’ lawsuit accuses Trump and his company of a long list of falsehoods in the financial statements he gave to banks. In a recent court filing, James’ office alleged Trump exaggerated his wealth by as much as $3.6 billion.

“Every estimate was determined by Mr. Trump,” Wallace said in his opening statement. He pointed to pretrial testimony by Trump Organization figures and ex-insiders including Cohen, who said the company estimated assets to get to a predetermined number “that Mr. Trump wanted.”

Wallace said the alleged scheme got the company better loan rates, saving it $100 million in interest.

“They hid their weaknesses and convinced these banks to take on hundreds of millions of dollars in risk,” he said, adding: “While the defendants can exaggerate to Forbes magazine or on television, they cannot do it while conducting business in the state of New York.”

Among the allegations were that Trump claimed his Trump Tower apartment in Manhattan — a three-story penthouse replete with gold-plated fixtures — was nearly three times its actual size and worth an astounding $327 million. No apartment in New York City has ever sold for close to that amount, James said.

Trump valued Mar-a-Lago as high as $739 million — more than 10 times a more reasonable estimate of its worth, James claimed. Trump’s figure for the private club was based on the idea that the property could be developed for residential use. While Trump lives there, deed terms prohibit further residential development on the property, James said.

Trump lawyer Christopher Kise said defense experts will testify that assigning values to properties is, by nature, a matter of opinion.

“There is no such thing as objective valuation,” Kise said in an opening statement.

Any discrepancies in values don’t amount to fraud, he said, and disclaimers on the financial statements made clear that these were estimates and that banks would have to perform their own analysis.

Trump and his lawyers have also argued that no one was harmed by anything in the financial statements. Banks that made loans to him were fully repaid. Business partners made money. And Trump’s own company flourished.

James’ lawsuit is one of several legal headaches for Trump as he campaigns for a return to the White House in next year’s election. He has been indicted four times since March, accused of plotting to overturn his 2020 election loss to Democrat Joe Biden, hoarding classified documents and falsifying business records related to hush money paid on his behalf.

The New York fraud trial is expected to last into December, Engoron said.


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