World

Donald Trump returns to civil fraud trial in New York

Judge Arthur Engoron is presiding over the trial (Andrew Kelly/pool photo via AP)
Judge Arthur Engoron is presiding over the trial (Andrew Kelly/pool photo via AP) Judge Arthur Engoron is presiding over the trial (Andrew Kelly/pool photo via AP)

Former US president Donald Trump has returned to a New York City court to watch and deplore the civil fraud trial that threatens to disrupt his real estate empire, but he got no face-to-face encounter — for now — with the star witness against him.

After attending the trial’s first three days earlier this month, the Republican front-runner initially planned a return to coincide with testimony by Michael Cohen, his lawyer turned foe.

But Mr Cohen’s planned appearance was delayed until at least next week, with Mr Cohen citing a health problem.

Instead, Mr Trump sat in on testimony from one of his company’s accountants, Donna Kidder.

Under point-by-point questioning about the intricacies of internal spreadsheets, she testified that she was told to make some assumptions favourable to the company.

For example, she said, longtime former Trump Organisation finance chief Allen Weisselberg told her to act as if all space in a Trump-owned Wall Street office building would be leased by a certain date, even if some space was currently vacant.

For a Park Avenue residential tower, she was told to project that unsold units “would all sell out” in a certain timeframe, the trial heard.

Ms Kidder said she was not aware that those assumptions would be used to improve Mr Trump’s bottom line on financial statements that helped his company make deals and get financing and insurance.

Doug Larson, a certified appraiser and commercial real estate executive, was taken aback when told on the stand that he was repeatedly cited as an outside expert in former Trump Organisation controller Jeffrey McConney’s valuation spreadsheets.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump Donald Trump sat in on testimony from one of his company’s accountants (Peter Foley/pool photo via AP)

“It’s inappropriate and inaccurate,” Mr Larson said. “I should have been told, and an appraisal should have been ordered.”

Mr Larson said he never suggested or condoned the ways that Mr McConney valued various properties.

For example, rather than using rates of return for comparable retail properties when gauging the worth of a Trump-owned retail space formerly known as Niketown, Mr McConney relied on rates for a different type of property, which “doesn’t make sense”, Mr Larson said.

He said he appraised a Trump-owned Wall Street building at 540 million dollars in 2015, while Mr McConney valued it at 735.4 million dollars on Mr Trump’s financial statement.

New York attorney general Letitia James’ lawsuit against Mr Trump alleges that he and his company deceived banks, insurers and others by massively overvaluing his assets and inflating his net worth in paperwork used in making deals and securing financing.

Mr Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, denies any wrongdoing. He says his assets were actually undervalued and maintains that disclaimers on the financial statements amounted to telling banks and other recipients to check the numbers out for themselves.

“We built a great company — a lot of cash, it’s got a lot of great assets, some of the greatest real estate assets anywhere in the world,” he said as he headed into court, dismissing the lawsuit as “a witch hunt by a radical lunatic attorney general” bent on dragging down his presidential run.

Donald Trump sits in the courtroom with his legal team
Donald Trump sits in the courtroom with his legal team Donald Trump sits in the courtroom with his legal team (Andrew Kelly/pool photo via AP)

While he is attending the trial by choice, Mr Trump complained it was taking him off the campaign trail.

The attorney general, a Democrat, started investigating Mr Trump in 2019 after Mr Cohen testified to Congress that the billionaire politician had a history of misrepresenting the value of assets to gain favourable loan terms and tax benefits. She did not comment as she arrived on Tuesday.

Mr Cohen said on Monday on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he is not dodging Mr Trump. In a text message, he said he has an “incredibly painful” medical condition but anticipates testifying as soon as the pain subsides.

“When I do testify, I am certain Donald will be in attendance, sitting with his lawyers at the defendant’s table,” Mr Cohen wrote.

With Mr Trump at the defence table on Tuesday, one of his lawyers, Christopher Kise, objected to what he deemed “very granular” testimony from Ms Kidder.

If technical, it did provide a window into Trump Organisation accounting practices, including how the company paid for a settlement in a prior Trump tangle with New York state’s lawyers: former attorney general Eric Schneiderman’s 2013 lawsuit over the now-defunct Trump University real estate seminar programme.

Ms Kidder noted a spreadsheet entry about a loan that the Trump Organisation took out to pay a 25 million dollar settlement of lawsuits from Mr Schneiderman and others alleging that Trump University defrauded students.

Judge Engoron in court
Judge Engoron in court Judge Arthur Engoron is presiding over the trial (Andrew Kelly/pool photo via AP)

During his first visit to the court earlier this month, Mr Trump said the trial was a scam, and accused Ms James of attempting to hurt his chances of re-election in 2024.

Mr Trump recapped his various criticisms of the case and about Judge Arthur Engoron, a Democrat who is hearing the case without jurors. The suit was brought under a state law that does not allow for a jury.

Mr Trump used his Truth Social media platform early on Tuesday to blast Judge Engoron as radical and “highly political”, but the former president took a more temperate tone outside the judge’s courtroom doors a few hours later.

Mr Trump said that he had come to like and respect the judge but believed that Democrats were “pushing him around like a pinball”.

After Mr Trump maligned a key court staffer on social media during the trial’s first days, the judge called him into a closed-door meeting and issued a limited gag order, warning participants in the case not to smear members of his staff. The judge also ordered Mr Trump to delete the post.

Mr Trump’s return to court comes a day after the judge in his Washington DC election interference criminal case imposed a narrow gag order barring the former president from making statements targeting prosecutors, possible witnesses and court staff.

In a pre-trial decision in the New York civil case last month, Judge Engoron resolved the top claim, ruling that Mr Trump and his company committed years of fraud by exaggerating the value of Mr Trump’s assets and net worth on his financial statements.

As punishment, the judge ordered that a court-appointed receiver take control of some Trump companies, putting the future oversight of Trump Tower and other marquee properties in question. An appeals court has since blocked enforcement of that aspect of the ruling for now.

The trial concerns six remaining claims in the lawsuit, including allegations of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.