Donald Trump returns to his New York fraud trial after two gag orders

The former president lashes out in the courthouse and online as he hears more testimony against him

Alex Woodward
in New York Superior Court in Manhattan
Tuesday 17 October 2023 17:51 EDT
Donald Trump says civil fraud trial is going ‘very well’

Donald Trump returned to a Manhattan courtroom for the 11th day of a civil trial in a $250m lawsuit alleging widespread real-estate fraud in his business empire.

Just two weeks ago, the former president told reporters that he was “stuck” inside New York Superior Court Judge Arthur Engoron’s courtroom, watching a trial he’s not obligated to attend, and complained that he couldn’t campaign because of it.

But it appears he plans to be “stuck” there once again this week.

Mr Trump’s fourth appearance at the trial on 17 October was expected to be a long-anticipated face-off between the former president and his former attorney Michael Cohen, a star witness for New York Attorney General Letitia James and her team. Cohen’s testimony was postponed due to a scheduling conflict with an unrelated medical issue.

In one of his several brief makeshift press conferences directly outside the courtroom, with news cameras and reporters positioned behind barricades flanking either side of a short hallway, Mr Trump said that his former attorney “didn’t have the guts” to appear.

It was among a series of loaded and false statements he delivered to cameras, in what have become spectacles on top of a high-profile trial with his business-building brand at stake. Before the first three days of the trial had ended earlier this month, coloured by the enraged and frustrated former president’s compulsive name-calling and inflammatory rhetoric in the courthouse and online, Judge Engoron issued a gag order against him.

In a statement on Monday, Cohen said that when he does testify, “I am certain Donald will be in attendance, sitting with his lawyers at the defendant’s table.”

Donald Trump and his legal team, along with his son Eric Trump, left, address reporters during a lunch break in a civil trial on fraud allegations in Manhattan on 17 October.

On 3 October, less than two days into the trial, the judge delivered a verbal gag order a few feet away from the former president after he made a series of false claims about the judge’s chief clerk on his Truth Social and in the hallway steps from the courtroom.

Mr Trump and others are barred from disparaging members of the court staff. That hasn’t stopped him from insulting the judge and Ms James. Less than an hour after the trial broke for the day, he lashed out at New York’s attorney general on his Truth Social.

On Monday 16 October, a federal judge issued another partial gag order against him ahead of a trial surrounding his alleged criminal conspiracy and obstruction to subvert 2020 presidential election results.

“I won’t be able to speak like I’m speaking to you, and I’m not saying anything wrong,” the former president said outside the courtroom in lower Manhattan on Tuesday.

He didn’t stay long. The former president didn’t return to the courtroom after a lunch break to attend to another legal matter: his deposition in a lawsuit from two former FBI agents who allege they were wrongfully fired during the Trump administration for sending anti-Trump texts to one another.

Mr Trump’s return to the trial came one day after a bombshell exchange on the witness stand after three days of trial testimony from a Trump Organization executive.

The company’s assistant vice president Patrick Birney confirmed on Monday that convicted former chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg told him that the former president wanted to inflate his worth on his statements of financial condition, the allegedly fraudulent documents at the heart of the case.

“Did Allen Weisselberg ever tell you that Donald Trump wanted his net worth on his statement of financial condition to go up?” counsel Eric Haren asked.

“Yes,” Mr Birney replied.

Mr Birney’s testimony followed two weeks of arguments from Ms James’s team and witness testimony intended to show that Mr Trump and his company chiefs were integral to their attempts to fraudulently inflate the value of his assets on financial statements provided to banks and insurers.

On Tuesday, the former president heard testimony from Trump Organization accountant Donna Kidder, who reviewed years of financial records at the centre of the case, and Doug Larson, a former commercial real estate appraiser who previously told investigators with Ms James’s office that he had no idea how Mr Trump’s chief associates arrived at the allegedly fraudulent valuations quoted in their statements.

Ms Kidder said former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg told her in 2012 to remove the company’s management charges at one Trump property on a cash flow report in an effort to boost the property’s value. He described it as moving “from one pocket to another,” she told the court.

Mr Larson, formerly of Cushman & Wakefield, said valuations of Trump properties – used without his knowledge, based on what he said were years-old conversations – were “inappropriate”.

Throughout the trial, counsel with the attorney general’s office has been clinical in its presentation of evidence, going record by record, year by year, to bolster arguments that the former president, his adult sons and chief associates fraudulently inflated his net worth and assets to attract and retain favourable financial benefits.

Donald Trump appears with his attorneys Christopher Kise, left, and Alina Habba, right, in New York Superior Court on 17 October.

The former president, unsmiling and avoiding eye contact, sat with his shoulders forward next to his attorneys at the defence table, occasionally whispering to them or pointing to documents in front of him. Ms James sat just feet away on the other side of the room, one row behind him.

Mr Trump perked up for the first time on Tuesday as his attorney Lazaro P Fields sought to undermine Mr Larson’s testimony to argue that real estate valuations are wholly separate from professional appraisals, after Ms James’s office argued that the Trump Organisation appeared to make up their own.

Mr Fields sought to undermine Mr Larson’s testimony with a lengthy debate over semantics, trying to draw a distinction between “valuations” and “appraisals” – arguing that while appraisals are left to certified professionals, anyone, even Mr Trump, can “value” a property.

Mr Field asked Mr Larson at one point if he agreed that “there is nothing illegal or unethical” about a property owner doing that.

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