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Trump Defensive & Admonished as He Testifies in Financial Fraud Case While Running for Reelection

Web ExclusiveNovember 07, 2023
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Watch Part 2 of our interview with Lauren Aratani, reporter for the Guardian US who is covering former President Donald Trump’s New York civil fraud case. She describes his testimony on Monday and how the trial has unfolded, and what could happen next.

Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Former President Donald Trump lashed out from the witness stand Monday during his New York civil fraud trial, in which much of his real estate empire is at stake. On the witness stand Monday, Trump bashed Democratic New York Attorney General Letitia James as a “political hack” and claimed, quote, “The fraud is her.” Judge Engoron told Trump, quote, “This is not a political rally,” and said to his lawyers, quote, “I beseech you to control him.” Trump spoke outside the courtroom after his testimony.

DONALD TRUMP: I think it went very well. I think you were there, you listened, and you see what a scam this is. This is a case that should have never been brought. It’s a case that should be dismissed immediately. The fraud was on behalf of the court.

AMY GOODMAN: And this was the response from New York Attorney General Letitia James to Trump’s testimony.

ATTORNEY GENERAL LETITIA JAMES: He rambled. He hurled insults. But we expected that. At the end of the day, the documentary evidence demonstrated that in fact he falsely inflated his assets to basically enrich himself and his family. He continued to persistently engage in fraud. The numbers don’t lie. And Mr. Trump, obviously, can engage in all of these distractions. And that is what — exactly what he did, what he committed on the stand today, engaged in — engaging in distractions and engaging in name calling. But I will not be bullied. I will not be harassed. This case will go on.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Lauren Aratani, reporter for the Guardian US who’s been attending the trial. Her most recent piece is headlined “Speeches and grandstanding: Trump’s scores few if any legal points in court.”

Thanks for staying with us for Part 2 of this conversation, Lauren.

LAUREN ARATANI: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: So, if you can start out by talking about, well, where you left off, the courts that he is addressing. When he testified yesterday, he was questioned by the prosecution. He’s also going to be brought back on, most likely, by his defense team.

LAUREN ARATANI: Right. So, basically, you know, kind of the idea that I wrote about in my piece is to say is, I guess, you know, what you expect out of a courtroom is very much a kind of a structured proceeding, where you have, you know, the judge — in this case, there’s no jury. The judge is the sole decider of the case, because it’s a bench trial. You know, you have the prosecutors. You have the defense team. It’s very structured, you know, standard protocol. But with Donald Trump, because this case is around him, there’s this other trial that’s within this kind of regular court, you know, financial fraud trial, and that’s one of, you know, in the court of public opinion, a very political trial.

And so, basically, what you’re seeing is, you know, yesterday, when Donald Trump took the stand, he basically was holding his own mini rallies. You know, he slipped into this kind of language that we’re so used to hearing from him, where he described his properties as “beautiful.” You know, he boasted that his golf courses are some of the best in the world. You know, and then he basically talked about all the money that he’s had. He mentioned multiple times that he had a lot of cash. And then, when it came to the judge, who, again, is the sole decider of the case, and Letitia James, attorney general, who brought the case against him, he used these words like “political hack.”

Probably one of the most shocking things that I heard in court is he said that this whole case is a witch hunt. You know, we’ve heard him use the term “witch hunt” for many years at this point. But for him to say that in an actual courtroom is surprising. And again, there is no recording or audiotapes available. All we can get in the courtroom is basically our laptops and our cellphones as journalists, and we’re typing away, trying to just transcribe what he’s saying. So, really, the performance, the question is: Who is this for? And it seems like what he’s trying to do is really kind of get this message out that this case is, he says, unfair. But, of course, you know, at the end of the day, it didn’t necessarily seem to be — that help him make his case for himself, because, again, the judge is the sole decider. There’s a $250 million fine at stake. So, yeah, it seems like with his performance, he was really doing this for himself and his campaign.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk for a moment about Mar-a-Lago. What he’s assessed it at, something like — what? — one to one-and-a-half billion dollars. Other real estate —

LAUREN ARATANI: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: — assessments are something like $18 million, which the judge cited, that infuriated Trump. Talk about these disparities and the Trump family calling these victimless crimes. I don’t know if they referred to them as crimes, but…

LAUREN ARATANI: Right. No. I mean, it is kind of, you know — basically, the situation is that what the state is arguing is that the Trump family, by inflating the value of their assets on these financial statements, you know, saying that Mar-a-Lago is worth a billion to a billion-point-five, you know, basically means that when the banks gave loans to the Trump family and the Trump Organization, they were charging lower interest rates than they would have if they were honest about the value of their financial assets.

And so, last week, we saw the state bring on an expert witness. He was a — he is a CEO of an investment bank. And basically, he made the argument, or helped the state make the argument that when the banks were lending out loans to the Trump Organization, they were losing out on better interest rates, I guess, for the banks. They were losing out on what could have been higher interest rates, and thus losing out on profit and money. And so, this expert witness had calculated that through four properties alone that are in the case — this includes Trump International Hotel in Chicago, this is the Trump Doral, which is his golf course in Miami, the Trump Old Post Office Building in D.C. — if the banks had — if the Trump family had been honest about how much these assets were worth on their financial statements, and were charged accurate interest rates accordingly, they would have paid about $168 million more.

And so, this is really important, because what this trial is trying to settle is how much of a fine the Trump family should be paying. It’s this idea of disgorgement, this idea that the state is trying to get back the money, the profits that the Trump Organization made by inflating the value of their assets. And so, that’s kind of what is at the core of the case.

AMY GOODMAN: So, go back in time to last week. You had Michael Cohen testifying. You had Trump’s oldest two sons testifying, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., Eric in charge while he was president, supposedly. What they said, what they admitted and didn’t admit, and what did Donald Trump actually admit, even if he was filled with vitriol for the judge, for the law clerk, for Tish James?

LAUREN ARATANI: Right. So, with Eric Trump’s testimony, now, he, it seems like, kind of got the brunt of a lot of the questioning from the prosecutors, because there are a lot of documented evidence, basically, that he had some involvement in the financial statements. And, of course, when he first took the stand, he very much denied even knowing about the financial statements before this case was brought on. He basically said, you know, “I didn’t know about” — it’s called a statement of financial conditions. It’s the New York financial statement that’s at the center of the case. And he basically said, “I did not know that the statement of financial condition even existed before the attorney general brought her case.” But then there are multiple emails from Trump’s kind of accounting team basically emailing Eric Trump and, you know, making notes in data spreadsheets that were used for the financial statements, saying that Eric Trump had been consulted via telephone calls, or there are calendar invitations where he had been consulted or where they discussed the financial statements. So there is clear evidence that at some point, even if it was 10 years ago, he was consulted for the financial statements. But largely, what Eric Trump did is he denied even remembering that these meetings even took place. A lot of what he said is that, you know, this was 10 years ago. He kept on mentioning that he was 26 at the time, or around that age. You know, he was young. He was, you know, kind of a new executive at his father’s company. And the way that he really portrayed it is that these are financial statements that were part of many documents, part of many things that he was consulted over as an executive. So he was really not specific in necessarily answering what those meetings or what he was consulted on for these documents.

But Trump yesterday, you know, something that he did admit was specifically around his triplex apartment and along with Seven Springs, which is his estate in Westchester County. He did admit on the stand, briefly, that those two properties may have been inflated a little bit in his financial statements. But he kept on using the term “nonmaterial,” in that, you know, the inflation that occurred for those properties were basically — you know, amount to nothing, and that, basically, they did not intend to, and that was accounting errors. You know, a lot of what Trump and his two sons did continuously throughout their testimony is basically kind of put the blame, you know, on his accountants. You know, they were working with Mazars USA for a long time, until Mazars broke away from the Trump Organization a few years ago. And they basically said that these financial statements were of the responsibility of their accountants and legal team. And so, they used that a lot when it came to answering questions, you know, specific questions. They usually deferred it to these other teams.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, but their accountants, of course, are using information that they give them. And then, the size of —

LAUREN ARATANI: Of course, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — Trump’s apartment, that’s so important to him, in New York, saying it’s 33,000 square feet, where it’s around 10,000 square feet. And why that matters as a kind of metaphor for everything?

LAUREN ARATANI: Right. You know, it really seems — and you’ve got — I got the sense a lot when he was on the stand yesterday that, you know, these properties really mean a lot to him, in that he, you know, thinks that they are worth what he thinks they’re worth, which is a lot. You know, he basically was making the argument on the stand that he can take a picture of a building, or he can just look at a building, and kind of assess its value right then and there. And so, whatever the building is worth is basically how much he can sell it for.

And an argument he kept on making is that, you know, when he became president, his brand value increased. And so he was saying that, you know, this was the hottest period ever for his company, because his presidency helped his brand value. Now, of course, the judge, you know, often when he was kind of going off on these rants, would try to hone Trump in. At one point, he asked the prosecutor, you know, “Did you ask for an essay on brand value?” because he was just kind of going off.

So, yeah, it really seems like — you know, and these are kind of the moments when he really got upset, was when — you know, at one point, the prosecutor had pointed out that for multiple years, from 2012 to 2014, 40 Wall Street, which is his office building in the Financial District in New York, basically, it was running at a deficit for multiple years. And you could see that Trump was kind of getting angry kind of with this line of questioning, and he was defensive about it, basically saying that, you know, they were doing construction on the properties, but, ultimately, it’s a great building, the occupancy is really high.

And he would really be boastful about his various properties, you know, especially even when talking about his Aberdeen golf course in Scotland. He kept on using the language “beautiful” around, and he at one point said it’s “the best golf course in the world.” And again, this is kind of when we’re hearing Trump kind of revert back to his kind of political kind of speech, the way that he sounds when he’s on the campaign trail.

So, yeah, you really get a sense that this case is really important to him, because it’s kind of at the heart of who he has kind of made of himself, which is this businessman turned president. And because this case is so much about his business, it’s a really sensitive area.

AMY GOODMAN: He suggested a while ago how this is outrageous he couldn’t have a jury. But they decided on judge as jury, right? And speaking of the judge, Engoron, if you can talk about what Trump’s beef is with the judge’s clerk and why he continually bashes her? Especially after a bad day for him in court, whether or not he’s testifying, they will make the court clerk the issue, so he can go off and talk about the whole thing being political.

LAUREN ARATANI: Right. So, I mean, one thing to know about this judge is that he does have his clerk on the bench with him, which some judges have and some others don’t. So, this is a case where Judge Engoron really, you know, prizes the, I guess, you know, consultation of his principal law clerk.

And so, you know, with Trump, to kind of get a — outline the scene that’s in the courtroom — right? — you have the defense table on the left side, the prosecutors on the right side, and they’re both very close to the judge’s bench. And the judge is kind of sitting up in front of the whole room, kind of, you know, looking over, and he’s at a very high seat especially compared to Trump. And sitting directly in front of Trump is the judge and his law clerk.

And, you know, because Engoron — he said that he is fine with Donald Trump going off against him. And Trump definitely has. If you see his posts on social media, he will continuously call the judge corrupt. He’ll say so outside of the courtroom, which, in itself, is a pretty unusual move to do for a judge that’s deciding your case. But when it comes to his law clerk, you know, it just seems like Trump is doing kind of what he is so used to doing, which is attacking the people that he sees as his enemy. And so, when he sees the clerk, Allison Greenfield, sitting with Engoron on the bench, you know, he basically has targeted her, as well. But the difference is that Engoron has the power to stop Trump from talking about his law clerk, and has basically told him that he could send him to prison if he continues to talk about his law clerk.

You know, there was — I guess the most recent spat was when it seems like Trump’s team, Trump’s lawyers, were getting very sensitive about the fact that the law clerk is passing notes with the judge, you know, throughout the trial. And, of course, you know, this is normal. This is how people communicate during trials. But it just seems like something that, you know, Trump’s lawyer had wanted to bring up because it seems to be such a sensitive issue for Trump himself. And so, it seems like his lawyers are preparing to file a motion around that.

But, ultimately, at the heart of it, you know, what’s been really kind of shocking to hear is, you know, even when Donald Trump is in the courtroom, the judge will basically say that the reason why he’s so sensitive about his staff is because — and he said this multiple times — he doesn’t want anyone to get killed, that he understands that this is a very heated political environment that we’re in, and, you know, his staffer, although she is a law clerk, you know, she is not at the height of a judge, and, of course, she is a private citizen. And so, a lot of that sensitivity is about the care that he has for his staff. And that’s really come out in the multiple gag orders at this point that he has issued against Trump and his lawyers.

AMY GOODMAN: Unusually, not only gagging Trump, but his lawyers, not that it has had an effect.

LAUREN ARATANI: Right. Right, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally —

LAUREN ARATANI: They continue to bring it up.

AMY GOODMAN: — Ivanka Trump, why is she being asked to testify, which apparently she will do on Wednesday? She tried to pull out of this.

LAUREN ARATANI: Right. Yeah. So, basically, you know, Ivanka, along with her two brothers, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, she was a top executive at the Trump Organization. And so, basically, she, like her brothers, were helping to broker deals for the family. And it seems like she did a lot of work around making the kind of agreements with the banks for loans that are, you know, kind of talked about in the case. Now, of course, Ivanka had left the Trump Organization in 2017 to help her father in the White House. And she was previously listed as a defendant on the case, but essentially was taken off over the summer, because the appeals court had said that the claims against her were too old.

And so, basically, what we’re going to be seeing tomorrow is kind of what we’ve been seeing with Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, where, you know, his kids have been asked about these various documents that they signed, the agreements that they made. But, of course, they are usually not too specific about what they talk about. But, basically, you know, as a executive of the Trump Organization who helped make these deals with banks, you know, she kind of — you know, a lot of it is about the fact that they had used these financial statements to broker these deals and get these loans. So I think a lot of what we’re going to see tomorrow is questioning about that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the New York Attorney General’s Office, prosecution, is seeking penalties of up to what? A quarter of a billion dollars, $250 million.

LAUREN ARATANI: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And a permanent ban on the Trump family owning companies in New York. What are the implications of this for the former President Trump, who could be the next President Trump?

LAUREN ARATANI: Right. I mean, to be fair, with the judge’s pretrial ruling that came out at the end of September, you know, the most serious consequence so far has been Trump potentially losing his business licenses, which means that he will not be able to run his real estate business in New York. Now Trump’s team is appealing that with the appellate court, and we’re still waiting for a decision on that pretrial ruling. But, basically, what this $250 million fine will do is make it a lot harder for the family to continue to own their buildings in New York. It will likely have huge damage for the Trump Organization and their operations worldwide. So, yeah, there is a lot at stake on this fine. And, of course, the attorney general had calculated $250 million, and it’s what she says is the minimum.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does this portend for the other trials that Trump will be involved with? Now, this one’s a civil trial. He would be found liable, not guilty, technically. The others, he could go to prison. And what does it mean, his attitude, and what this means for the — for what’s happening in Georgia, what’s happening in New York with the DA, and what’s happening with the federal prosecution?

LAUREN ARATANI: Yeah, I think this says a lot about how Trump, you know, sees kind of the judicial system. And it seems like when it comes to, I guess, the amount of respect that he is showing on the stand as a witness, and also the way that his lawyers have been conducting themselves throughout the case, that it kind of will be an uphill battle for him and his team, because this case, well, it is about, you know, his business empire and how that’s a thing that’s very close to him. You know, he cares a lot about his net worth. It’s a lot about his money. As you mentioned, that there is no prison time waiting for him at the end of this case. And even then, he seemed to be losing his patience a lot on the stand, losing his patience outside of the courtroom, going off against the judge.

And one thing to mention about Judge Engoron is that he is a pretty, I would say, affable judge, typically. Like, he is making jokes on the stand. You know, he is even cracking jokes with, you know, Donald Trump Jr. when he’s on the stand. And it’s just, you know, he is a judge that appears to be a lot more tolerant of maybe the politics that are going on. And so, what we might see in these later cases are judges that might be a little bit more strict. And it really seems like Trump is having a really hard time in taming down his kind of political persona when dealing with the judicial system.

AMY GOODMAN: Lauren Aratani, I want to thank you for being with us, reporter for the Guardian US covering the Trump Organization civil fraud trial here in New York City. We’ll link to your most recent piece, “Speeches and grandstanding: Trump scores few if any legal points in court.” To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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