Donald Trump’s lawyers ask judge to end civil fraud trial

Donald Trump during his civil fraud trial at New York Supreme Court (Brendan McDermid/Pool Photo via AP)
Donald Trump during his civil fraud trial at New York Supreme Court (Brendan McDermid/Pool Photo via AP)

Donald Trump’s lawyers are calling for an immediate end to the New York civil fraud trial that threatens the former US president’s property empire.

Mr Trump’s legal team is arguing that state lawyers failed to prove their client intended to dupe banks, insurers and others by inflating his wealth on financial statements.

Mr Trump’s lawyers sought a directed verdict, asking Judge Arthur Engoron to clear the 2024 Republican frontrunner, his namesake company and other defendants of wrongdoing at the halfway point in the trial of state attorney general Letitia James’s lawsuit.

“There’s no victim. There’s no complainant. There’s no injury. All of that is established now by the evidence,” Mr Trump’s lawyer Christopher Kise said. He argued that state lawyers had failed to meet “any legal standard” to prove allegations of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.

Mr Trump, left, and his lawyer Chris Kise
Mr Trump, left, and his lawyer Chris Kise (Luiz C. Ribeiro/Pool Photo via AP)

State lawyer Kevin Wallace responded that the defence’s arguments “sounded more like closing arguments” and that there was no basis for a directed verdict.

Mr Engoron did not make an immediate decision, saying the arguments were “taken under advisement”. The judge, who has repeatedly ruled against Mr Trump, has signalled interest in seeing the trial to its conclusion, asking defence lawyers for witness schedules and pegging closing arguments close to Christmas.

Mr Kise implored Mr Engoron to give special weight to Mr Trump’s evidence on Monday, citing the ex-president’s decades of experience as a property developer. He argued that Ms James, in pursuit of a political opponent, was trying to “substitute her judgment for that of the banks and, frankly, for that of someone who has been involved in the real estate industry for 50 years”.

In the witness box on Monday, between barbs for his adversaries, Mr Trump denied wrongdoing and said lenders were “extremely happy” doing business with him. If anything, Mr Trump said, his financial statements underestimated his wealth and the value of assets such as his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Mr Kise said on Thursday, that when talking about property, “if my choices were Donald Trump or attorney general James, respectfully, I would go with Donald Trump”.

New York attorney general Letitia James
New York attorney general Letitia James is seeking the return of what she says is more than 300 million dollars in fraudulent gains (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

Clifford Robert, a lawyer for Mr Trump’s eldest sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr, asked that claims against them should be dismissed. He argued that state lawyers had failed to prove that the sons, whom Mr Trump appointed to run his company when he went to the White House in 2017, worked on the ex-president’s financial statements.

Mr Robert said the sons, who signed off on some documents attesting to their father’s wherewithal, “acted appropriately” in trusting accountants and lawyers for assurance the documents were accurate.

“I’m sorry to say that my clients have been dragged into what is essentially a fight between the attorney general and their father, but here we are,” Mr Robert said. “The time has come that we need to put an end to it.”

Mr Wallace countered that Mr Trump, and his sons each signed documents saying that they were responsible for the preparation and fair presentation of the financial statements, which Mr Engoron has already ruled were false and misleading.

The lawyers were making their arguments in court a day after Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump gave evidence as the state’s last witness.

Ivanka Trump after giving evidence in the trial
Ivanka Trump after giving evidence in the trial (AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey)

Directed verdict requests are common in civil trials, though they are somewhat infrequently granted. In Mr Trump’s trial, Mr Engoron is tasked with deciding the outcome rather than a jury.

Mr Engoron has repeatedly sided with state lawyers over Mr Trump, most consequentially in a decision before the trial that Mr Trump, his company and other defendants committed fraud by exaggerating his net worth and the value of assets on his financial statements, which were used to obtain loans and make deals.

Mr Engoron’s pre-trial fraud ruling came with provisions that could strip the ex-president of such marquee properties as Trump Tower, though an appeals court is allowing him to remain in control of his holdings for now.

The state rested its case on Wednesday after six weeks of evidence from more than two dozen witnesses. Ms James is seeking the return of what she says is more than 300 million dollars (£245 million) in fraudulent gains and a ban on Mr Trump and other defendants from doing business in New York.

Mr Trump gave evidence on Monday. Eric and Donald Trump Jr gave evidence last week. Trump Organisation executives, outside accountants who worked on Mr Trump’s financial statements and bank executives who worked on his loans also gave evidence.

Mr Kise emphasised that lender Deutsche Bank made its own adjustments to the asset values listed on Mr Trump’s financial statements, giving substantial “haircuts” to the estimates for Trump Tower and other properties, and decided to lend him hundreds of millions of dollars anyway. Adjustments amounted to 2 billion dollars in some years, Mr Kise said.

Mr Kise also attacked Mr Trump’s former lawyer-turned-foe Michael Cohen’s credibility. He said Mr Cohen undermined the state’s case when he backtracked from his initial evidence that Mr Trump had directed him to boost the value of assets to “whatever number Trump told us to”.

Pressed on cross-examination during his evidence on October 25, Mr Cohen conceded that Mr Trump never told him to inflate the numbers on his personal statement. Mr Robert then asked for an immediate directed verdict, which Mr Engoron denied. Mr Kise called Mr Cohen’s evidence a “pathetic performance”.

The sides are spending Thursday making legal arguments known as motions, including the defence’s directed verdict bid. Mr Trump’s side is scheduled to start calling witnesses on Monday, though that would be moot if Mr Engoron ended the trial with a directed verdict.