Donald Trump attacked New York’s attorney general and the judge overseeing his civil fraud trial.
As it began and a state lawyer accused the former president of generating more than $1 billion by lying about his real estate empire.
The trial in a Manhattan courtroom concerns accusations by state Attorney General Letitia James that Trump inflated his assets and his own net worth from 2011 to 2021 to obtain favorable bank loans and lower insurance premiums.
James is seeking at least $250 million in fines, a permanent ban against Trump and his sons Donald Jr and Eric from running businesses in New York and a five-year commercial real estate ban against Trump and the Trump Organization.
The state called Donald Bender, a partner at Mazars USA and longtime accountant for Trump’s businesses who worked on Trump’s annual statements of financial condition, as its first witness.
Trump told reporters outside the courtroom before the day’s proceedings began that the case was a “scam,” a “sham” and a political vendetta by James, calling the Democrat “a corrupt person, a terrible person. Driving people out of New York.”
Trump kept up his verbal attacks on the judge. Trump accused Justice Arthur Engoron of being a partisan Democrat who is using the case to interfere with the 2024 presidential election, where Trump is the frontrunner for the Republican nomination.
“This is a judge that should be disbarred,” Trump said to reporters during Monday’s lunch break. “This is a judge that should be out of office.”
James has accused Trump of overvaluing assets including his Trump Tower penthouse apartment in Manhattan, his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and various office towers and golf clubs, and inflated his own fortune by as much as $2.2 billion.
In his opening statement, Kevin Wallace, a lawyer in James’ office, called Trump “materially inaccurate” in describing his finances to banks and insurers.
“This isn’t business as usual, and this isn’t how sophisticated parties deal with each other,” Wallace said. “These are not victimless crimes.”
Christopher Kise, a lawyer for Trump, countered in his opening statement that the financials for Trump and the Trump organization were entirely legal.
“It is one of the most highly successful brands in the world, and he has made a fortune literally being right about real estate investments,” Kise said. “There was no intent to defraud, there was no illegality, there was no default, there was no breach, there was no reliance from the banks, there were no unjust profits, and there were no victims.”
Trump wore a dark blue suit, a brighter blue tie and an American flag pin on his lapel in court. As he entered, he called the case “a continuation of the single greatest witch hunt of all time.”
He also defended his company as a “great” and “tremendous” business owning “some of the greatest real estate assets in the world. And now I have to go in before a rogue judge.”
James said her office was ready to prove its case.
“The law is both powerful and fragile,” she said before entering the courtroom. “No matter how much money you think you may have, no one is above the law.”
Engoron will hear evidence without a jury.
The case largely concerns penalties that Trump, his adult sons and 10 of his companies must face after Engoron last week found them liable for fraud.
Before opening arguments, Engoron described himself as a generalist on the law. “One thing I know a lot about is the definition of fraud,” he said.
In his Sept. 26 decision, Engoron described in scathing terms how the defendants made up valuations.
He said this included valuing the Trump Tower apartment as if it were three times its actual size, and estimating that Mar-a-Lago was worth up to $739 million though deed restrictions capped it at $28 million.
The judge canceled business certificates for companies controlling pillars of Trump’s empire, and said he would appoint receivers to oversee their dissolution.
Trump responded at the time by calling Engoron “deranged.”
Wallace played an excerpt from a deposition where Michael Cohen, who had been Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer but has since turned against his former boss, said the goal was “to attain the number that Mr. Trump wanted.”
Kise countered that just because people disagree about valuations does not mean one valuation must be fraudulent.
He also said Trump’s banks and insurers knew his valuations were estimates.
“They are not designed to be absolutes,” he said.
Alina Habba, a lawyer speaking on behalf of some defendants, in a separate opening statement called Trump’s assets “Mona Lisa properties,” and said Mar-a-Lago alone would fetch more than $1 billion if Trump sold it.
The trial is scheduled to run through early December.
More than 150 people including Cohen could testify, though much of the trial may be a battle of experts opining on financial documents.
Trump also faces several other legal headaches, which have been a financial drain, and made him the first sitting or former U.S. president to be criminally charged.
He has been criminally charged in Washington over his efforts to undo his loss in the 2020 presidential election, in Georgia over moves to reverse election results there, in Florida over his handling of classified documents upon leaving office, and in New York over hush money payments to a porn star.
Trump has denied all wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty.