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Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Trump fraud trial hears from final witnesses, adjourning for monthlong hiatus before closing arguments

After more than two months of heated courtroom outbursts, hallway grandstanding and intensive dives into the depths of accounting minutiae, the two sides in former President Donald Trump’s New York fraud trial have called their final experts, with the court now adjourning for a lengthy break before closing arguments.

Trump’s defense team finished its presentation on Tuesday not with Trump, as they originally planned, but with a feisty, combative accounting professor named Eli Bartov, who proclaimed New York Attorney General Letitia James’ case against Trump “absurd.”

James’ team then called two witnesses to rebut Bartov’s testimony and other experts called by Trump’s lawyers. Wednesday’s proceedings were peppered with objections by Trump’s attorneys, protests that occurred at an unusually high rate throughout the bench trial.

The day marked the end of witness testimony in the civil fraud trial, which now shifts to a new phase. Both sides will begin to present their closing arguments on Jan. 11, and the judge plans to issue his ruling a few weeks later.

How the Trump fraud trial unfolded

The trial has been a lengthy, tense standoff between Trump and James, who were often in the room as their legal teams clashed. From the beginning, they took turns lashing out at each other to the media gathered outside.

Trump attended opening statements on Oct. 2, taking his motorcade downtown from Trump Tower on a nearly 80 degree day to proclaim James and the case “a disgrace.” She would later call his comments “baseless” and his statements to the press, “a show.”

It was the first of nine appearances he’d make during the case, in which he, two of his sons and their company are accused of reaping more than $250 million through an alleged scheme designed to misrepresent his wealth to banks and insurers. All of the defendants deny wrongdoing.

The next day, on Oct. 3, Trump published to his social media site a derogatory post about a clerk who works for Arthur Engoron, the judge in the case.

The post earned Trump a gag order, setting in motion a parallel fight that left him seething at the limits a judge can impose on a defendant. He and his campaign twice violated the order, and he paid $15,000 in fines.

The state presented its case first and called more than 20 witnesses, including Trump himself, his children Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump, as well as lesser-known defendants who formerly worked for the Trump Organization, Allen Weisselberg and Jeffrey McConney. Ivanka Trump was originally a defendant in the case, but allegations against her were dismissed by an appellate court due to the statute of limitations.

James claims Trump gave banks and insurers financial statements with intentional miscalculations that went against generally accepted accounting principles, known as GAAP. Trump and his sons laid the blame for any misrepresentations at their accountants’ feet, while their lawyers maintained that the statements were actually in keeping with an obscure facet of accounting called accounting standards codification 274, or ASC 274. The standard, described by Bartov as “the stepchild of GAAP,” allows wide latitude for preparers when estimating asset values.

Throughout Trump’s appearances at the court, he often addressed members of the press who were squeezed into two pens outside the courtroom. He offered commentary on topics ranging from the case and judge, to Capitol Hill and his opponents for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. On Oct. 25, though, he mentioned “a person who is very partisan sitting alongside” Engoron.

The judge was incensed. His clerk, who was the subject of the social media post that sparked the gag order, sits directly next to him at all times during proceedings. About an hour later, Engoron called Trump to the stand.

Engoron questioned Trump under oath. Trump claimed he was referring to the witness, his arch nemesis and former “fixer” Michael Cohen, who sat about five feet away from the judge. Engoron didn’t buy it. Earlier in the case, Trump had been fined $5,000 when his campaign neglected to remove a reproduction of the offending social media post. This time, Engoron fined him $10,000.

“Do it again, it’ll be worse,” Engoron said.

On Nov. 6, James’ team called Trump to the stand. With the fate of his company on the line, Trump clashed with Engoron and hurled insults at James, who was sitting in the front row.

He repeatedly gave long-winded answers to questions about Trump Organization property valuations and other issues. The judge’s patience wore thin, but Christopher Kise, one of Trump’s attorneys, encouraged him to allow Trump to give answers in his own way.

“With this witness I would suggest it’s far more efficient to listen to what he has to say and take it in,” Kise said, prompting laughter from lawyers working for the attorney general. Engoron was not amused. His anger appeared to boil over, and his microphone struggled to handle the sudden change in volume as his voice rose.

“No, I’m not here to hear what he has to say,” Engoron said, a line that would later be used in Trump campaign solicitations. “I’m here to hear him answer questions. Sit down!”

On Nov. 16, a New York appellate judge temporarily halted the gag order against Trump, while an appeal was considered. Within hours, Trump and his campaign staff began attacking the clerk again, primarily through social media posts. Before the appeal was rejected and the gag was reinstated on Nov. 30, the clerk experienced a deluge of threats, often antisemitic, according to a court security officer who submitted an affidavit.

Trump’s team tried again to have the order lifted, to no avail. The matter is still pending before an appeals court.

Trump was expected to testify Monday, but ultimately, an extensive security apparatus and the national media were assembled in the blustery weather for a no-show. Trump announced late Sunday he had changed his mind about taking the stand one more time.

On Tuesday, he said it’s because he was barred from criticizing the judge’s clerk.

“I wanted to testify on Monday, despite the fact that I already testified successfully….” he wrote on his social media site, before adding, “the Judge, Arthur Engoron, put a GAG ORDER on me, even when I testify, totally taking away my constitutional right to defend myself. We are appealing, but how would you like to be a witness and not be allowed free snd [sic] honest speech.”

Both sides claimed Wednesday to have proved their case.

“During almost 11 weeks of trial, the testimony of President Trump, world-class experts, and the bankers and others involved in the complex financial transactions at issue confirmed what was clear from the outset, namely, that there was no fraud, there were no victims and there has simply been no harm,” Kise said.

James cited a pretrial ruling finding the defendants liable for fraud, while allowing the trial to move forward on related allegations.

“While the judge already ruled in our favor and found that Donald Trump engaged in years of significant fraud and unjustly enriched himself and his family, this trial revealed the full extent of that fraud – and the defendants’ inability to disprove it,” James said.

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