A combative Donald Trump clashed repeatedly with the judge on Monday as he took the stand in the New York civil fraud case threatening to cripple his real estate empire.
One year out from an election he hopes will return him to the White House, Trump became the first former US president to testify as a defendant in a court case in more than a century, reports AFP.
During his testimony, the 77-year-old Trump accused Judge Arthur Engoron of issuing “fraudulent” rulings, and denounced New York state attorney general Letitia James, who brought the case against him, as a “political hack.”
“He called me a fraud and he did not know anything about me,” Trump said of the judge, who was sitting right next to him, before calling the trial a “political witch hunt.”
“This is not a political rally,” the judge admonished Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. “Please, just answer the questions, no speeches.”
At one point, a visibly angry Engoron told Trump’s lawyer, Christopher Kise, to “control your client.”
Dressed in a dark blue suit and tie with an American flag on his lapel, Trump denounced what he called a “very unfair” and “crazy trial” brought by Democrats “coming after me from 15 different sides.”
Trump, his eldest sons, Don Jr and Eric, and other Trump Organization executives are accused of exaggerating the value of their real estate assets by billions of dollars to obtain more favorable bank loans and insurance terms.
Testifying under oath, Trump dismissed allegations that the company’s financial statements were fraudulent, describing them as “very conservative.”
“They were not really documents that the banks paid much attention to,” he said, and the value of the “Trump brand” was not taken into account in the valuations of his assets.
“I became president because of my brand,” Trump said under questioning from Kevin Wallace, a lawyer for the New York attorney general’s office.
– ‘Numbers, my friends, don’t lie’ –
James, the attorney general, told reporters before Trump’s testimony that the former president had “consistently misrepresented and inflated the value of his assets.”
“Before he takes the stand, I am certain that he will engage in name-calling and taunts and race-baiting and call this a witch hunt,” James said. “But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters are the facts and the numbers.
“And numbers, my friends, don’t lie.”
Trump has repeatedly attacked James, who is Black, as “racist,” and has also gone after Engoron, calling the judge “unhinged” and a “Trump-hating radical left, Democrat operative.”
Engoron has responded by slapping Trump with $15,000 in fines for violating a partial gag order imposed after he bashed the judge’s clerk on social media.
Trump’s testimony follows that of his sons Don Jr. and Eric, who took the stand last week and blamed accountants for any inaccuracies in the financial statements of the company.
According to The Washington Post, the last former president to testify publicly as a defendant was Theodore Roosevelt, who took the stand during a 1915 libel trial.
Trump has already given testimony twice in connection with this case, both times in closed-door depositions.
– First of several trials –
Trump and his sons do not risk going to jail, but face up to $250 million in penalties and potential removal from the management of the family company.
Even before opening arguments, Engoron ruled that James’s office had already shown “conclusive evidence” that Trump had overstated his net worth on financial documents by between $812 million and $2.2 billion between 2014 and 2021.
As a result, the judge ordered the liquidation of the companies managing the assets in question, such as the Trump Tower and 40 Wall Street skyscrapers in Manhattan.
That order is on hold pending appeal, but its potentially sweeping consequences highlight the high stakes for the former president.
The civil fraud trial is one of several legal battles Trump faces as he seeks to recapture the presidency.
In March, Trump — who was impeached twice while in office — faces a trial on charges that he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he lost to President Joe Biden.