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Donald Trump downplayed the importance of the financial statements at the centre of a civil fraud lawsuit as he began a tumultuous turn on the witness stand that provoked several rebukes from the judge and turned a New York courtroom into a political theatre.
At one point, after Trump repeatedly flouted instructions, an irritated Judge Arthur Engoron told an attorney for the former president: “I beseech you to control him, if you can. If you can’t, I will.”
Trump’s lawyer Christopher Kise said he thought the court “should grant the former president of the US . . . a little latitude to explain himself”. Trump, meanwhile, shook his head and declared: “This is a very unfair trial. I hope the public is watching.”
Wearing a dark suit, white shirt and blue tie, the former president took the stand just after 10am, where he was sworn in as a witness in a civil case brought by the New York attorney-general Letitia James.
The judge had already concluded that Trump committed fraud by persistently inflating his net worth to secure bank loans and insurance policies for the Trump Organization on advantageous terms.
At stake in his testimony is whether Trump will be forced to pay crippling penalties upwards of $250mn and be stripped — along with his adult sons, Donald Jr and Eric — of the ability to operate a business in New York.
Trump set the tone early, responding to “yes or no” questions with expansive lectures about the art of real estate valuation and diatribes about the legal cases against him.
Asked if he recalled what he had been doing in July 2021, for example, Trump replied: “Other than you and every other Democrat attorney-general and district attorney, et cetera, coming at me from 15 different sides? All Democrats. All Trump haters.”
On the substantive issue of the financial statements, Trump dismissed their importance and minimised his involvement in their preparation. “They were not really documents that the banks paid much attention to,” he said.
“I would look at them. I would see them. Maybe on occasion I would have some suggestions,” he replied when asked by Kevin Wallace, a lawyer for the New York attorney-general, about his involvement in their preparation. If anything, he said, his brand was worth far more than stated.
On another occasion, Trump said he was too busy with other matters to involve himself in the statement, saying: “My threshold was China, Russia and keeping our country safe.”
The image of a former president sworn under oath and seated in the witness stand offered a vivid reminder of the legal problems besetting Trump as he plots a course back to the White House.
The leading contender for the Republican nomination is facing three criminal trials in the coming months stemming from his alleged attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election and his handling of classified documents after he left office. He has been charged in a fourth criminal case, brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, with masterminding hush money payments to a porn actress with whom he allegedly had an affair.
Trump has denied wrongdoing in all matters, and dismissed the cases as partisan witch-hunts meant to end his political career.
The former president was a scowling presence in the early days of the New York civil fraud trial, using a phalanx of cameras outside the courtroom to broadcast to his supporters during breaks in the action and attack the state’s attorney-general and the judge.
He sat briefly in the witness chair when the judge halted the proceedings a few weeks ago to question Trump about disparaging comments he had made about a law clerk in violation of a partial gag order. The judge deemed the former president’s testimony “not credible” in that instance. In total Trump has been fined $15,000 for violations of the order.
Trump was preceded on the stand by Donald Jr and Eric, who have spent their entire careers at the family business and then took charge of it when their father became president in 2017.
In their testimony last week, the brothers portrayed themselves as executives with little interest in accounting who were happy to delegate to others. In particular, both sought to distance themselves from the “statement of financial condition” that outlined Trump’s wealth and which is central to the attorney-general’s case.
Some defence attorneys have questioned the wisdom of Trump taking the stand since his testimony may be used against him in the pending criminal cases.
“You’ve already lost the battle and the war in New York and the risk of testifying is enormous,” said Daniel Horwitz, a former prosecutor who now chairs the white-collar practice at McLaughlin & Stern.
Michael Bachner, a New York defence attorney, said: “Prosecutors will be sitting in the courtroom waiting for Trump to state something under oath that can be used in the criminal prosecution.”
But Trump may have other considerations. By testifying, he is sure to dominate the airwaves, leaving little space for his Republican rivals. He may also be able to drive home the message to voters and potential jurors that he has nothing to hide.
Ahead of Trump taking the stand, James said in a message on social media platform X, formerly Twitter, on Monday morning: “Donald Trump might lie, but the facts and the numbers don’t.”