Former President Donald Trump was all over the map on the witness stand Monday in the civil fraud case brought against him by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Especially if it’s a treasure hunt map in which the valuations of the treasure are inflated and the shiny metal inside the chest is fool’s gold.
In the trial, which began early last month, James claims that financial statements filed by Trump between 2011 and 2021 fraudulently inflated the value of assets so he could obtain favorable bank loans while undervaluing others to cut his taxes.
Trump’s goal on the witness stand was to puff up his chest as a defiant victim for political purposes. But that could only spell doom for his case in court.
His attacks on the judge, the attorney general, and the court proceedings show four things:
- He knows his case is lost and that he’s going to get socked with something close to the full $250 million judgment;
- Trump’s usual trick “When trapped, distract,” doesn’t work in court.
- His only legal play is the delay of appeal.
- His political play is to his MAGA base as a pugnacious anti-establishmentarian. If he gets re-elected, he’ll stiff the state and the court in whatever way his 2025 plan for lawless retaliation develops.
Monday’s script for his testimony was predictable, though with Trump, there are always variations on the theme.
Remember: Judge Engeron has already found the Trump organization’s valuations of property given the lending banks fraudulent—the only real issue at the trial is what the remedy will be.
James has asked for Trump to compensate the people of the state of New York by paying $250 million dollars. She also seeks to have his license to do business in the state be revoked.
Trump has to care about those things. No defendant who thinks he has a chance to trim his losses attacks the judge or the court proceedings or a constitutional state officer on the witness stand. Trump has given up on the trial.
2. “When trapped, distract.” Trump offered his usual braggadocio. As to valuations, according to Lisa Rubin, a former litigator and NBC analyst who was in the courtroom: “I was more expert than anyone else.”
What works on the hustings, however, doesn’t fly in court. As Judge Engeron pointedly remarked, “This is not a political rally.” Even straight up lies go unchallenged there.
Trump had too many wild explanations on the stand to recount and got caught too many times by his cross-examiner New York Assistant AG Kevin Wallace. A few will suffice.
Take his 10,000-square-foot Trump Tower apartment. Wallace asked Trump why the financial statements listed its size at three times its actual dimensions. Trump threw an unnamed real estate broker under the bus as the source, forgetting to add that the broker was told the square footage was 30,000.
Trump then offered this ham-handed excuse: “I have access to the roof, and when you add the roof, you’re not that far off.”
Oy! No prudent broker or appraiser values external square footage the same as improved internal space.
Ultimately, Trump admitted that the value was probably high, but then mused, “But you never know . . . . It only takes one person to buy it!”
It only takes one family to buy my house for $200 million, too. I just keep waiting for them to knock on my door.
Later, Wallace asked Trump if his financial statements inflated his assets. According to Lisa Rubin, Trump demurred. He “wo[uld]n’t answer directly, instead saying they were fully protected by disclaimers.”
Unfortunately for Trump, the statements also carry this warranty:
Donald J. Trump is responsible for the preparation and fair presentation of the financial statement in accordance with accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”
And even more unfortunately for Trump, Judge Engeron had already rejected Trump’s reliance on those so-called “disclaimers,” calling them “worthless” as an excuse for fabricated valuations.
Finally, on the witness stand Monday, Trump delivered a comical epitaph on his own credibility as a witness. He explained that he wasn’t involved in preparing the 2021 financial statements because he was “busy keeping the country safe” from “China, Russia.”
Assistant AG Wallace let him down gently, and with a deft touch: “But, just for the record, you weren’t president in 2021?” Even the great Houdini couldn’t escape that coffin.
The judge is sure to conclude that a person who justifies grossly inflated values submitted to banks by bobbing and weaving with falsehoods and distractions while under oath can’t be allowed to keep his business license.
3. Delay by appeal. It was clear that appeal is the name of the game for Trump’s lawyers. His nonresponsive answers and unbounded pontificating on the stand prompted the court to cut him off at times, and to ask his lawyers to try to control him.
At one point the apparently frustrated judge said, “We are not here to hear what he has to say, we are here to hear him answer questions. And most of the time he’s not.”
Trump’s lawyers will certainly use the first part of the statement in their appeal to claim that the court was biased.
It won’t work. Engeron is sure to base his judgment in large measure on Trump’s and his children’s complete lack of credibility. Appellate courts do not disturb such findings.
But appeals take time. Trump figures that’s all he needs to allow his political play to succeed.
4. The political play. Trump knows that MAGA voters who are behind his nomination don’t care if he tells the truth so long as he plays the tough, anti-establishmentarian. By calling the judge biased and a fraud, by dubbing the trial “crazy” and a “witch hunt,” Trump played his defiant persona to the hilt.
He’ll potentially get slammed with a big money judgment in the case. But before the bill really comes due, he’ll make some of it up fundraising off of the ruling.
The main thing is to get elected and get rid of the criminal cases against him. Expect any Trump Justice Department to drop any federal prosecutions against him, including opposition to any appeals of his convictions.
Don’t be surprised if you see his DOJ issue an opinion that even a state prosecution, like the one in Georgia, gets suspended while a president is in office.
As for the coming big money New York civil case judgment, he’s got a whole team working on “Project 2025,” scheming how to retaliate against those who have stood against him. Letitia James and Arthur Engeron are surely on their list.
Problem for Trump is that 2024 voters will have something to say about all this. In 2023’s special elections, ABC found that Democrats had outperformed the “partisan lean” in areas where the voting took place by an average of 10%.
Watch today’s results to see if that trend continues. People’s votes are a far better bellwether of next year’s election than opinion polls a full year out.