Trump testifies at NY fraud trial that estimates of his properties were inaccurate
PHOTO CAPTION: Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump salutes during the national anthem at a campaign rally in Houston, Texas., U.S. November 2, 2023. REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare
By Jack Queen and Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Donald Trump on Monday said that financial estimates of many of his properties were inaccurate as he testified in a civil fraud trial in New York that threatens to diminish the real estate empire that built his reputation.
But the former U.S. president sought to minimize the importance of the valuation estimates that state lawyers said were inflated to win better financing terms.
"They just weren’t a very important element in the bank’s decision-making process, and we’ll explain that as this trial goes along, as this crazy trial goes along," Trump said under questioning from New York state lawyer Kevin Wallace.
Judge Arthur Engoron has already ruled those estimates to be fraudulent. New York state lawyers argue that they misled lenders and insurers, earning him $100 million and exaggerating his wealth by $2 billion.
Trump has repeatedly said the case is a politically motivated "witch hunt." On Monday he criticized Engoron and New York Attorney General Letitia James on social media and said outside the courtroom that the case was an attempt to undercut his 2024 presidential bid.
"It's political warfare as you would call it, or political lawfare," he said as he entered the courtroom.
James brushed aside the comments.
"At the end of the day, the only thing that matters are the facts and the numbers. The numbers, my friends, don't lie," James said outside the courthouse.
Trump's complaints extended to the witness stand, where he accused legal authorities of paying unduly close attention to his business after he won the 2016 presidential election.
“I’m sure the judge will rule against me because he always rules against me," he said.
Engoron sought to keep Trump's testimony on track.
“You can attack me, you can do whatever you want, but please just answer the question,” he told Trump.
Unlike the four criminal cases the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination faces, this civil trial does not threaten to put him in prison as he mounts a comeback White House bid.
Indeed, Trump has sought to take advantage of the legal cases, using them to solicit campaign donations and argue that he is being targeted for his political views.
But the civil fraud case against Trump and his business could undercut his image, cultivated over decades, as a glamorous billionaire who shuttles between elegant resorts and premium golf courses that bear his name.
James is seeking $250 million in fines, as well as restrictions that would prevent Trump and his sons Eric and Donald Jr. from doing business in their home state.
In testimony last week, both sons said they were unfamiliar with the details of the valuation documents. Trump made that argument as well, saying accountants did the bulk of the work.
Engoron has already canceled business certificates for companies that control large portions of his business, though that order is on hold during appeal.
Evidence introduced at trial so far has revealed that company officials, including Trump's sons Eric and Donald Jr., tried to manipulate the assessed value of trophy properties like the Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
One witness, his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, testified that Trump directed him to doctor financial statements to boost his net worth.
Trump's anger has been clear throughout.
Though his presence until today has not been required in court, he has already appeared several times to glower at the proceedings from the defendant's table and complain about the case to TV cameras outside the chamber.
That has earned him fines of $15,000 for twice violating a limited gag order that prevents him from criticizing court staff. Trump's lawyers have chafed at that order and indicated they might use it as the basis for an appeal, but Engoron expanded it on Friday to cover them as well.
Trump's crowded legal calendar threatens to take him off the campaign trail for much of next year.
His election campaign has used the trial as a fundraising opportunity, writing at the outset on Oct. 2 that he was defending his family and reputation from New York Democrats it called "corrupt tyrants."
Republican voters do not seem to be bothered by his legal woes, as opinion polls show he holds a commanding lead in the party's presidential nominating contest.
The trial was originally scheduled to run through early December but could wrap up sooner as the state calls its final witnesses this week. It is unclear how many witnesses the defense will call.
Trump's daughter Ivanka is due to testify on Wednesday, though she is not a defendant in the case.
(Reporting by Jack Queen and Luc Cohen; Additional reporting and writing by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Scott Malone, Lisa Shumaker and Grant McCool)