Donald J. Trump took to the witness stand Monday morning and within minutes turned his day in court into a live Truth Social post.
No one understands real estate like he does, Trump testified, and the banks knew what they were doing. The judge sitting next to him is “biased,” the court is a “fraud” and the case against him “crazy,” Trump said, voice rising.
“Done?” a lawyer for the state asked at one point.
“Done,” Trump replied. He wasn’t.
So it went Monday as Trump, the 45th president and current 2024 Republican frontrunner, took the stand in the $250-million civil fraud trial over asset valuations at the Trump Organization, the family real estate business at the heart of his persona.
The extraordinary scene—a former commander-in-chief taking the stand after his annual financial statements were found to be filled with fraud—marked the start of what is likely to be a signature feature of the 2024 campaign. Trump confronts not only this civil case in New York but also multiple criminal indictments as well.
From the stand, Trump projected the strident tones of his political rallies. He appeared visibly angry and sometimes shouted over questions. He repeatedly angered the judge with long, rambling digressions that seemed plucked from his social media posts.
Trump on the witness stand
AT stake in New York is the future of the family real estate business that vaulted Trump to fortune, fame and ultimately the White House. The American people couldn’t see the proceedings because they weren’t televised.
Trump, his face sullen, plodded to the witness box and raised his hand to take the oath just after 10 a.m. Trump initially answered questions relatively succinctly. That didn’t last.
Less than an hour into the proceedings, Justice Arthur Engoron —who will determine the verdict and the penalty without a jury—threatened to remove Trump from the stand for giving long, rambling answers to yes-or-no questions, even after being asked not to do so.
“Can you control your client?” Engoron asked defense lawyer Christopher Kise as Trump looked on, hunched over on the stand. “This is not a political rally.”
Trump ignored the instructions. The mood in the room grew tense, and the attorney general’s lawyer, Kevin Wallace, grew visibly frustrated. Engoron at one point suggested Kise take some time to speak with his client privately about how to conduct himself on the stand. The lawyer balked.
“The former and soon-to-be chief executive of the United States understands the rules,” Kise insisted.
“But he doesn’t abide by them,” the judge shot back.
‘Sit down already’
New York Attorney General Letitia James alleges Trump inflated his assets by as much as $3.6 billion a year on his annual statements of financial condition to dupe banks and insurers into giving him better terms on loans and policies. She claims the former president reaped $250 million in “illegal profit” through the scheme.
Engoron blasted Trump’s lawyers for attempting to defend his answers, particularly after they suggested he deserved extra leeway because he’s a presidential candidate.
“We are not here to hear what he has to say,” Engoron said. “We are here to hear him answer the questions. And most of the time he’s not.”
When Trump’s lawyer Alina Habba challenged the judge, he told her to “sit down already!”
Trump acknowledged he had a hand in preparing the financial statements that valued his properties. The judge in the case has already ruled that the Trump Organization manipulated those numbers to defraud banks and insurers. The decision puts Trump’s business empire at risk by allowing the state to dissolve his New York business certificates. Bloomberg
“I think it’s fraudulent, the decision, the fraud is on the court, not me,” Trump said. “He called me a fraud and he didn’t know anything about me.”
The legal troubles haven’t hurt Trump in voter opinion polls. To the contrary: His campaign is expected to exploit Monday’s testimony, as well as Trump’s criminal indictments, to raise more money from donors.
Trump is expected to return to the witness stand to testify for the defense case at a later date. He currently faces a gag order, issued against him by the judge, barring him from publicly commenting on members of Engoron’s staff.
Asked by Wallace if he knew that banks used his annual statements of financial condition, Trump went beyond a “yes” or “no” answer to assert that banks didn’t care about the documents.
“They just weren’t a very important element in banks’ decision-making process, and we’ll explain that as this trial goes along, as this crazy trial goes along,” Trump said.
Trump also repeatedly highlighted his belief that the case is irrelevant because his statements of financial condition had disclaimers that urged banks to do their own valuations and not to rely on his estimates.
“Don’t, under any circumstances, count on anything here,” Trump said in characterizing the disclaimer. He said that disclaimer was so strong, in his view, that he was comfortable signing off on the documents that he said were prepared by others.
“One of the reasons I never got too involved with these statements is because that clause is on page one,” Trump said.
Trump gave another reason for his lack of involvement with the documents: politics. Trump said he wasn’t involved in preparing a 2021 statement of financial condition because he was too busy “keeping our country safe.”
“My threshold was China, Russia,” Trump said.
“But, just for the record, you weren’t president in 2021?” Wallace said.
“No, I wasn’t.”