Former President Donald Trump vigorously defended his wealth and business on Monday, tangling from the witness stand with the judge overseeing his civil fraud trial and denouncing as a “political witch hunt” a lawsuit accusing him of dramatically inflating his net worth.
Mr. Trump’s long-awaited testimony about property valuations and financial statements was punctuated by personal jabs at a judge he said was biased against him and at the New York attorney-general, whom he derided as a “political hack.” He proudly boasted of his real estate business – “I’m worth billions of dollars more than the financial statements” – and disputed claims that he had deceived banks and insurers.
“This is the opposite of fraud,” he declared. Referring to New York Attorney-General Letitia James, a Democrat whose office brought the lawsuit, he said, “The fraud is her.”
The testy exchanges, and frequent rebukes from the judge, underscored Mr. Trump’s unwillingness to adapt his famously freewheeling rhetorical style to a formal courtroom setting governed by rules of evidence and legal protocol. But while his presence on the stand was a vivid reminder of the legal troubles he faces as he vies to reclaim the White House in 2024, it also functioned as a campaign platform for the former president and leading Republican presidential candidate to raise anew to supporters his claims of political persecution at the hands of government lawyers and judges.
“People are sick and tired of what’s happening. I think it is a very sad say for America,” Mr. Trump told reporters outside the courtroom after roughly three-and-a-half hours on the stand.
Mr. Trump’s testimony got off to a contentious start Monday, with state Justice Arthur Engoron admonishing him to keep his answers concise and reminding him that “this is not a political rally.”
Turning to Mr. Trump’s attorney at one point, the judge said, “I beseech you to control him if you can. If you can’t, I will.”
The civil trial is one of numerous legal proceedings Mr. Trump is confronting, including federal and state charges accusing him of crimes including illegally hoarding classified documents and scheming to overturn the 2020 presidential election. His legal and political strategies have now become completely intertwined as he hopscotches between campaign events and court hearings, a schedule that will only intensify once his criminal trials begin.
Though the fraud case doesn’t carry the prospect of prison as the criminal prosecutions do, its allegations of financial impropriety cut to the heart of the brand he spent decades crafting. The suggestion that Mr. Trump is worth less than he’s claimed has been interpreted by him as a cutting insult.
“I’m worth billions of dollars more than the financial statements,” he said, telling a state lawyer, “You go around and try and demean me and try and hurt me, probably for political reasons.”
The courtroom at 60 Centre St. has become a familiar destination for Mr. Trump. He has spent hours over the past month voluntarily seated at the defence table, observing the proceedings. He took the stand previously, unexpectedly and briefly, after he was accused of violating a partial gag order. He denied violating the rules, but Justice Engoron disagreed and fined him anyway.
His turn as a witness gave him the biggest opportunity yet to respond to allegations against him.
Summoned by lawyers for the state, Mr. Trump repeatedly balked at the suggestion that he had ever intended to defraud financial institutions. He said that he’d been misquoted or taken too literally in past public comments about his business dealings and his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, and that disclaimers in his financial statements covered any missteps. And he returned to a familiar position that no one had been victimized.
“Not one bank lost money. Not one insurance company lost money. And the insurance company that you said lost is still my insurance company,” he said. “They’re one of the biggest insurance companies in the world and they don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Tensions between Justice Engoron and Mr. Trump, already on display in recent weeks, when the judge fined him a total of $15,000 for incendiary outside-of-court comments, were evident early on Monday when the ex-president was repeatedly scolded about the length and content of his answers.
Justice Engoron, who determined in a ruling earlier that Mr. Trump committed fraud for years while building the real estate empire that catapulted him to fame, will decide the non-jury case. He cautioned at one point that he was prepared to draw “negative inferences” against the former president if he failed to rein in his answers.
“I do not want to hear everything this witness has to say. He has a lot to say that has nothing to do with the case or the questions,” the judge said.
“Mr. Kise, can you control your client,” Justice Engoron told Trump lawyer Christopher Kise, who himself has clashed with the judge. Mr. Kise responded Mr. Trump was entitled to latitude as a former president and current candidate taking time away from campaigning to testify.
Despite the testy back-and-forth early in the day, Mr. Trump was later able to veer into expansive answers without anyone cutting him off, using the opportunity to rail against Ms. James, the judge and the proceedings in general.
“I think that she’s a political hack, and I think she used this case to try and become governor and she used it successfully to become attorney-general. I think it’s a disgrace that this case is going on,” Mr. Trump said.
Of Justice Engoron, Mr. Trump said, “He ruled against me and he said I was a fraud before he knew anything about me.”
Ms. James, who was in the courtroom, stared straight ahead at Mr. Trump as he spoke and was seen chuckling when Mr. Trump suggested she didn’t know anything about one of his properties that’s across the street from her office. Afterward, she told reporters, “He rambled. He hurled insults. But we expected that.”
Monday’s testimony centred on the core of the allegations by the state attorney-general: that Mr. Trump and his company intentionally inflated property values and deceived banks and insurers in the pursuit of business deals and loans.
Echoing the stance taken by two of his sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric, in their own testimony last week, Mr. Trump sought to downplay his direct involvement in preparing and assessing financial statements that the attorney-general claims were grossly inflated and fraudulent.
“All I did was authorize and tell people to give whatever is necessary for the accountants to do the statements,” he said. As for the results, “I would look at them, I would see them, and maybe on some occasions, I would have some suggestions.”
He also played down the significance of the statements, which went to banks and others to secure financing and deals, pointing to a disclaimer that he said amounted to telling recipients to do their own calculating.
“Banks didn’t find them very relevant, and they had a disclaimer clause – you would call it a worthless statement clause,” he said, insisting that after decades in real estate, “I probably know banks as well as anybody I know what they look at. They look at the deal, they look at the location.”
He complained that his 2014 financial statements shouldn’t be a subject of the lawsuit at all.
“First of all it’s so long ago, it’s well beyond the statute of limitations,” Mr. Trump said before turning on Justice Engoron, saying he allowed state lawyers to pursue claims involving such years-old documents “because he always rules against me.”
Justice Engoron said: “You can attack me in whichever way you want but please answer the questions.”