Trump Org defense closings feature a clueless Donald Trump and a big little loophole

This side-by-side photo shows Donald Trump speaking at the Minden Tahoe Airport in Minden, Nevada, on October 8, 2022, left, and the exterior of Trump Tower, home of the Trump Organization headquarters, in July of 2021, right.
Donald Trump speaking at the Minden Tahoe Airport in Minden, Nevada, on October 8, 2022, left, and the exterior of Trump Tower, home of the Trump Organization headquarters, in July of 2021, right.José Luis Villegas/AP, left; Ted Shaffrey/AP, right.
  • Trump Org. tax-fraud defense closings happened Thursday in a Manhattan criminal courtroom.

  • The Trump family was in the dark about rampant executive tax fraud, the defense says the trial showed.

  • The defense is also leaning on a three-word loophole that limits company liability for executives' crimes.

Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Eric Trump — the top-tier leadership of the Trump Organization — had no idea that a decade-long, personal tax-fraud scheme was being run by finance executives just one rung down the company ladder, defense lawyers told a Manhattan jury in closing arguments Thursday.

"Donald Trump was running a multi-billion-dollar corporate entity," one lawyer, Susan Necheles, told jurors of the Trump Organization's far-too-busy-for-fraud owner.

"He had a long running television show. He was building buildings all over the place," she continued. "He had casinos."

So Trump delegated "all of the accounting functions" of his real-estate and golf-resort empire to his trusted chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, the tax-dodge scheme's admitted mastermind, she argued.

But Weisselberg, she told jurors, hid his self-serving crimes from the Trumps, a family he'd worked for for more than 30 years.

"No member of the Trump family knew about his ongoing efforts to evade taxes," Necheles argued of the scheme, which ran from 2005 until 2018.

"He was ashamed of what he was doing," she added of the now ex-CFO, a star prosecution witness whose testimony may wind up helping his employers more than their prosecutors. Weisselberg remains on the Trump payroll, making $1.15 million this year on paid leave.

"You saw him on the witness stand almost crying" over betraying the Trump family, Necheles told jurors of the former finance chief, repeating for emphasis, "He was ashamed."

"Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg," another defense lawyer, Michael van der Veen, said in beginning a separate summation.

McConney, like Weisselberg, also remains on the Trump payroll; he testified he's earning $450,000 this year.

Both McConney and Weisselberg also testified they met with defense lawyers in preparing for their turns on the witness stand. Jurors could find the pair's big Trump salaries and collaboration with defense lawyers added a pro-Trump slant to their testimony.

But both top money men had strong incentive to tell jurors the truth, the defense argued, because each had a figurative prosecutorial gun to his head — or, as van der Veen said of Weisselberg, "the prosecutors had him by the balls."

McConney had to testify truthfully or risk losing the immunity from prosecution he won by cooperating with a Manhattan grand jury.

Weisselberg's August guilty plea requires his truthful trial testimony as a condition of his serving only 100 days jail for his admitted tax frauds.

"You know he's telling the truth" about never intending to benefit the company, "even if it's not what the prosecutors want to hear," van der Veer told jurors.

"The pressure of going to jail is like a truth serum," he added.

Two subsidiaries — the Trump Corporation and the Trump Payroll Corporation, both doing business as the Trump Organization — have been on trial in New York Supreme Court since late October.

No Trumps, and no other individuals — only the two Trump Org subsidiaries — are on trial, fighting a possible $1.6 million in penalties and the black eye of a felony conviction.

Prosecutors say the two subsidiaries must be held responsible for crimes admittedly committed by Weisselberg and the organization's top payroll executive, Jeffrey McConney: conspiracy, scheme to defraud, and tax fraud.

But the defense labored hard on Thursday, as they have throughout the trial, to deflect all blame away from the Trump family, though claiming ignorance as a defense may prove tricky given the amount of Trump-signed evidence in the case.

Prosecutors are certain to point out in their own closings later Thursday that the signatures of Donald Trump, Eric Trump, and Donald Trump Jr., are on a decade's worth of memos, leases, and invoices at the center of the scheme, showing their approval for a bounty of tax-free personal cars, apartments, and even private-school tuition.

The defense has tried to argue that Trump was just being generous, not condoning a tax-dodge scheme, when he approved executive perks and has also worked throughout the trial to throw out three little words as a giant barrier against the company's guilt.

These three words "in behalf of" came roaring to the forefront on Thursday since an executive's crimes must be committed "in behalf of" a company for that company to be legally liable.

At one point Thursday morning they literally loomed over the proceeding on two overhead projectors, giant displays showing the wording that the presiding judge, state Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, has said he will use to instruct jurors on corporate liability law.

Mechan has said he will interpret acting "in behalf of" to mean acting with at least some intent to benefit the company.

"I ask you to remember that language," Necheles told the jury, reading it aloud.

"And what does that phrase 'in behalf of mean?" she continued. "It's not 'on behalf of.' It's 'in behalf.' And that peculiar phrase has a very particular meaning," she said.

Prosecutors, she said, must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Weisselberg and/or McConney intended to help the company, not just their own bottom lines, through the tax scheme.

That's something, however, both top money men have strenuously denied.

"The prosecution has been trying to convince you that Mr. Weisselberg's actions were done 'in behalf of' the company," Necheles said. "But Mr. Weisselberg has told you repeatedly. They were done solely to benefit himself."

Necheles and van der Veen also used the overhead screen to show jurors repeated points in the trial transcript where Weisselberg and McConney said their only concern in running the tax-dodge scheme was to line their own pockets.

"That," Necheles said, "is the core of the case."

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