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NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s multibillion-dollar financial fraud trial kicked off in Manhattan on Monday with the former president spending the day scowling at the defense table and watching his lawyers fight for his business legacy.
Kevin Wallace, a lawyer for New York Attorney General Letitia James, told presiding Judge Arthur Engoron that the AG still had much to prove hot off the heels of her stunning victory last week.
Engoron last week found Trump, his sons Eric and Don Jr. and top executives Allen Weisselberg and Jeff McConney liable for James’ top fraud claim. The judge found Trump and his executives habitually cooked the books between 2011 and 2021, making Trump seem $2.2 billion richer than he was some years by inflating the value of buildings emblazoned with his name.
The judge’s ruling also ordered Trump to be stripped of all owned and controlled New York business certificates. The devastating blow could see him ostracized from doing business in the city where he created his image as a dynamo deal maker after inheriting his father’s sprawling housing empire if he doesn’t get the ruling overturned on appeal.
“Year after year — loan after loan — the defendants misrepresented Mr. Trump’s net worth to maintain those favorable interest rates,” Wallace said as James watched the first day of her sweeping case from the courtroom’s front row.
Wallace went on to describe how Trump and his team filed and signed off on false statements intending to defraud banks, lenders and other financial entities to score better loan terms, higher coverage limits at lower premiums, lower taxes and other illegal cost-saving measures.
For “those illegal acts, together with fraud,” Wallace said, the AG is seeking $250 million and to permanently bar Trump and his associates from brokering real estate deals or borrowing from banks for the next five years. She also wants to ban them from heading a New York business once and for all.
The jam-packed day of opening arguments and witness testimony saw as much action outside the courtroom as inside. About 50 anti-Trump protesters gathered outside the courthouse awaiting his arrival holding placards reading, “Trump Lies all the Time” and “Trump can run but he can’t hide from justice.”
For his part, the ex-president took every chance he got to jab at James and Engoron in comments to reporters.
“We’re going to be here for months with a judge (who’s) already made up his mind. It’s ridiculous,” Trump raved late in the day, alleging “election interference” as he seeks the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
James sat with spectators in the courtroom gallery behind the AG’s table — and was one of the first faces Trump saw when he arrived at around 10 a.m. She and Trump mostly looked the other way each time they came within feet of one another, with Trump shooting her a dagger at one stage while walking out during a break.
The AG has been the subject of scores of social media missives in the years since she began investigating him, with Trump regularly deriding her as “corrupt and racist.”
In his opening argument, Trump’s lawyer Chris Kise told Engoron his client wasn’t a criminal but a hotshot power player who’d made “many billions” of dollars following his gut in real estate deals.
“There was no nefarious intent,” the attorney said, later arguing the banks and insurers knew what they were getting into and that Trump’s financial statements were just estimates.
Kise, Florida’s former solicitor general, said Trump had built one of the world’s most successful and highly recognized brands with a dazzling portfolio of low-debt trophy properties. He argued Trump’s alleged offenses had no victims and that he had left the banks he dealt with richer.
“There are no victims, and we believe the evidence will show the attorney has no case,” Kise said, describing Trump’s business practices as standard for his industry. “This is what happens every day in (New York) City.”
While Trump raged at James, Eric appeared to try to take the high road, stopping to shake the AG’s hand.
Eric and Don Jr.’s lawyer, Cliff Roberts, in his opening statement took aim at the AG’s witness Michael Cohen, the former Trump fixer turned major critic.
“Their major linchpin is Michael Cohen — so when you talk about credibility, you’re going to have a guy who lies to everyone, who is a convicted felon,” Robert said.
Trump’s on-and-off lawyer Alina Habba provided an unusual additional argument for the main defendant, starting off by saying she hadn’t initially planned to do so. She invoked one of Trump’s favorite lines, characterizing his opponents as conducting a “witch hunt” as he listened on intently.
“Ms. James sat on the courthouse steps before coming in here,” Habba said, standing feet away from the AG. “That’s part of the schtick, I guess.”
While Trump blasted the judge all day — calling for his disbarment outside the courtroom and railing against him the night before trial on Truth Social as “unfair, unhinged, and vicious in his PURSUIT of me” — the Manhattan jurist projected a positive demeanor from the bench.
Engoron promised the parties to do his best in the trial, estimated to last three months “despite my lame attempts at humor.”
Trump previously promised to stay in the Big Apple for a week, drawing a heavy security presence. The trial resumes Tuesday.