Former President Trump’s legal team will mount its defense Monday in the sprawling civil fraud case targeting his business empire.
His legal team will be able to set the narrative of his business dealings and attempt to prove to a New York judge he should not have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in financial penalties to the state for defrauding it.
Trump’s team faces an uphill battle, given that Judge Arthur Engoron found the Trump Organization and its executives — including the former president and his adult sons — liable for fraud before the trial began.
The decision, which found that New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) proved the crux of her case before presenting it at trial, stripped Trump’s business licenses and put some of his iconic properties at risk. A New York appeals court paused the cancellation of the business licenses until after it hears Trump’s case.
James’s office rested its case in chief Wednesday — a case defined by high-profile witnesses, dramatic outbursts and a winding paper trail leading to the conclusion that Trump and his business sought lower taxes and better insurance coverage by falsely inflating and deflating the value of their assets.
In cross-examinations and courtroom arguments, Trump’s team tipped its hand at what might be coming in the former president’s presentation.
At the heart of the New York attorney general’s case are Trump’s statements of financial condition, documents that detail the value of the Trump Organization’s various assets. The financial statements were sent to banks and insurers to secure loans and deals, which the attorney general says is evidence of fraud.
The former president and his counsel have argued a disclaimer clause in the documents — put there by Trump’s then-accounting firm Mazars USA — absolves the business of any wrongdoing.
The clause, which Trump also described as a “worthless statement clause,” reads: “Users of this financial statement should recognize that they might reach different conclusions about the financial condition of Donald J. Trump if they had access to a revised statement of financial condition without the above referenced exceptions to accounting principles generally accepted in the United States of America.”
Trump testified Monday that the passage holds up “in any court, except maybe in this court,” and “goes on forever.”
“Therefore, you have no case,” Trump told a state lawyer on the witness stand.
The former president brought a printed copy of the clause to his testimony Monday, which he attempted to pull from his pocket to read on the witness stand before Engoron objected to the stunt. He later posted on Truth Social that the judge refused to allow him to read it “because he doesn’t want anybody to know” about the clause.
In his ruling ahead of the trial, Engoron rejected the defense’s argument about the disclaimer clause by noting another part of the passage that reads, “Donald J. Trump is responsible for the preparation and fair presentation of the financial statement.”
“The Mazars disclaimers put the onus for accuracy squarely on defendants’ shoulders,” Engoron wrote in the order.
For Trump, there is no escaping the financial statements that bear his name. But his three elder children, each of whom testified as witnesses in the state’s case, sought to distance themselves from the key documents — an effort that will likely continue through the defense’s case.
Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump each denied any involvement in their father’s financial statements, suggesting instead they relied on accountants and other experts to make sure the numbers were correct.
Trump’s legal team has sought to shift the blame for the statements’ skewed numbers from Trump and his family onto the accountants who calculated them. Ex-Trump accountant Donald Bender testified under cross-examination for nearly a full week at the start of the trial, when Trump’s lawyers sought to portray him as negligent.
At one point, Engoron jumped in and said the accountant is “not on trial here.”
“I would disagree with that,” said Chris Kise, Trump’s attorney. “His thoroughness, that he got paid millions a year to do — he was a [certified public accountant]. He has certain responsibilities.”
Engoron did not take well to the argument, accusing Trump’s team of “wasting time.”
Another argument Trump’s legal team has strongly pushed is that there was “no victim” of the business’s real estate dealings. On the witness stand, Trump reprised the familiar claim that the New York attorney general had no right to bring the case against his business because the banks did not sue him over misrepresentations.
“We’re trying to figure out, why are you doing this?” Trump testified Monday, referring to the lawsuit. “No one understands it. Well, I understand it — it’s called pol-i-tics.”
Trump and his lawyers claim the banks that worked on various real estate deals with the Trump Organization were required to do their “own due diligence” and not just rely on the representations in the financial statements provided by the business.
“Banks check the work,” Trump said on the witness stand.
An expert witness hired by the New York attorney general’s office testified earlier this month that the Trump Organization’s ballooned financial statements may have cost banks more than $168 million in interest.
However, the state’s case notably lacked witness testimony from any bank representatives who worked with the Trumps — or any evidence purporting the banks consider themselves defrauded.
A handful of Capital One and Deutsche Bank representatives could testify in the state’s rebuttal case “if necessary,” according to court filings. Among those named, the most significant is Rosemary Vrablic, who was Trump’s longtime banker in Deutsche Bank’s wealth management division.
Engoron will likely have a short fuse regarding this claim, having already chided Trump’s legal team for invoking “the time-loop in the film ‘Groundhog Day’” with its repeated arguments. The New York judge already ruled that the attorney general’s office had the power to bring the lawsuit regardless.
Donald Trump Jr. is expected to take the stand Monday as the defense’s first witness, likely setting the tone for the weeks of defense presentations to come. The trial is expected to last through mid-December.