MANHATTAN (CN) — The New York attorney general's $250 million fraud trial against Donald Trump began Monday morning and, contrasting his absence from the last Manhattan civil trial against the former president, Trump appeared in person at New York County Supreme Court.
Trump entered the civil division’s Courtroom 300 just after 10 a.m., flanked by his legal team and members of the Secret Service.
On the way to his seat, Trump scowled as he walked past New York Attorney General Letitia James.
First to address the courtroom was attorney Kevin Wallace, a key member of the team that brought the civil fraud charges last year against Trump, his businesses, his sons Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization's longtime chief financial officer.
Wallace said in his opening statement that the defendants saved “tens of millions of dollars” when they inflated assets on financial disclosure forms in order to get more favorable loans and insurance premiums.
Trump and his co-defendants all deny responsibility for inaccuracies on those financial statements, according to deposition clips Wallace played in court. Each pinned responsibility on another defendant, or denied having any influence over the Trump Organization's financial statements.
Wallace also presented deposition footage of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who claimed the former president would often ask him to increase the estimated value of his assets to boost his net worth if he "wanted to be higher on the Forbes list."
“The goal was to use each of the assets and increase its value in order to get to the end result number,” Cohen said. “It was basically backing in numbers to each of the asset classes in order to attain the number that Mr. Trump wanted.”
More than 100 members of the press piled into the courtroom and surrounding overflow rooms to view Monday’s proceedings. Heightened security and Secret Service agents peppered throughout the courthouse marked the presence of Trump, whose son Eric joined him.
Defense attorneys countered Wallace in its own opening statements, calling Cohen a “convicted felon” and a “serial liar,” before diving into some of the very same arguments that Judge Arthur Engoron cast aside last week, when he ruled Trump and his co-defendants committed “persistent and repeated fraud,” settling the lawsuit's top charge and leaving the remainder of the trial to focus on determining damages and James’ additional claims.
Still, Trump attorney Chris Kise once again on Monday claimed “there can be no reliance” on the financial statements to be wholly accurate, as they were up to the banks' own interpretation.
“It’s simply the opinion of the owner of the property,” Kise said of the statements.
The defense attorney also argued that disclaimers on the financial form meant the banks shouldn’t have merely taken the Trumps' estimates at face value when mulling over the conditions of a loan.
Engoron refuted both arguments in the 35-page ruling, finding Trump had lied about the projected value of numerous real estate assets, including his Trump Tower apartment in Manhattan.
“Time and time again, the court is not comparing one appraisal to another; it is comparing an independent professional appraisal to a pie-in-the-sky dream of concocted potential,” Engoron wrote.
Even so, attorney Alina Habba joined Kise on Monday in attempting to dismantle last week’s summary judgment.
She claimed Trump’s true net worth and property values are subjective — and lower than the figures listed on the federal forms.
“The value is what someone is willing to pay,” defense lawyer Alina Habba said. “The Trump properties are Mona Lisa properties, Your Honor.”
Trump has repeatedly lashed out at Engoron and James for the charges against him. Moments before he entered the courtroom, he told news cameras stationed in the hallway that the case was “the continuation of the single greatest witch hunt of all time.”
“We have a rogue judge who ruled that the properties are worth a tiny fraction, one-one hundredth, a tiny fraction of what they actually are,” he said. “We have a racist attorney general who is a horror show, who ran on the basis she would get Trump before she even knew anything about me.”
When leaving the courtroom Monday afternoon, the former president lamented the fact that the trial would be without a jury.
“As you know, we’re not entitled to a jury, which is pretty unusual in the United States of America, so I think it’s very unfair that I don’t have a jury,” Trump said — even though Engoron had clarified earlier that this was because neither the plaintiffs nor defendants had requested a jury trial.
Trump did praise Engoron for how Monday ended, however, when the judge granted defense attorneys a standing objection to any document that preceded a 2014 statute of limitations.
It was a rare moment for Trump, who spent a majority of the day attacking James and Engoron. In a post to Truth Social earlier Monday morning, he claimed Engoron was “working diligently to misrepresent me, and my net worth, which is substantially MORE than is shown on my fully ‘disclaimed’ Financial Statements.”
“He should resign from the ‘Bench’ and be sanctioned by the Courts for his abuse of power,” Trump wrote. “Likewise, Letitia James should resign for purposeful and criminal Election Interference. She is fully aware that Mar-a-Lago, and other assets, are worth much more than what she is claiming.”
Attorney General James issued a statement ahead of Monday's trial, the culmination of a yearslong investigation by her office.
“For years, Donald Trump falsely inflated his net worth to enrich himself and cheat the system. We won the foundation of our case last week and proved that his purported net worth has long been rooted in incredible fraud. In this country, there are consequences for this type of persistent fraud, and we look forward to demonstrating the full extent of his fraud and illegality during trial," James said."
“No matter how rich or powerful you are, there are not two sets of laws for people in this country. The rule of law must apply equally to everyone, and it is my responsibility to make sure that it does.”
Only one witness was called to the stand on Monday: Donald Bender, a longtime Trump Organization tax consultant who answered questions from Wallace about the specifics of his firm’s tax paperwork.
Bender was a key witness in last year’s criminal trial of the Trump Organization. His testimony helped prove that tax fraud took place within the company. He clarified on Monday that verifying the accuracy of the financial statements was the responsibility of the Trump Organization, not an outside accounting firm like his own.
His testimony will continue on Tuesday as state attorneys make their way down a list of 27 witnesses.
James brought the suit against Trump and his co-defendants in September 2022. The bench trial is expected to last through Dec. 22.Follow @Uebey
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