Trump Org hopes to win its Manhattan tax-fraud trial with an 'ignorance' defense — a Trump hallmark

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.
  • Summations are Thursday and Friday in the Manhattan tax-fraud trial of the Trump Organization.

  • The defense will say Trump and top execs were too trusting or distracted to knowingly commit fraud.

  • Trump's real-estate empire faces $1.6 million in penalties — and 'felon' status — if convicted.

Donald Trump may have once referred to himself as "a very stable genius," but that's not at all how Trump Organization lawyers hope a Manhattan tax-fraud jury sees him or his top executives.

Instead, in day-long closing arguments Thursday, company lawyers are set to argue that Trump and his company's two key money men were too trusting, too distracted, or just too plain dumb to knowingly commit fraud.

Call it the "ignorance defense," where Trump knew nothing of a C-suite-wide, decade-long tax-dodge scheme, and his top finance executives had only the foggiest idea they were breaking rudimentary tax laws — until they got caught.

It won't take much for such a defense to tip the scales. If it confuses or convinces even a single juror, the ignorance defense could deadlock deliberations and stave off a possible $1.6 million in penalties and the black eye of a felony conviction for Trump's namesake real-estate and golf-resort company.

The strategy has taken shape since Halloween, when jurors heard opening statements in the New York Supreme Court case, inside a cavernous courtroom on the 15th floor of an Art Deco-style courthouse in lower Manhattan.

Trump was a big-picture guy who was totally in the dark, jurors were told in openings, about the payroll-tax funny business that ran rampant under his nose for years just down the hall from his desk at Trump Tower, his Fifth Avenue skyscraper.

Trump had no idea, jurors heard, that a handful of his top executives were saving hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in taxes through the scheme, which let the executives receive large chunks of their pay as cars, Trump-branded apartments, flat-screen televisions, and even tuition payments.

These "perks" were studiously tracked as executive compensation in internal Trump Organization records but systematically kept off the company's W-2 forms, jurors were told by former CFO Allen Weisselberg and top payroll man Jeffrey McConney.

Star prosecution witnesses with arguably mixed loyalties, the two told jurors they never let anyone named Trump in on the scheme.

Jurors may well wonder how Donald Trump, or Eric Trump, or Donald Trump, Jr., could truly have been ignorant of the scheme when the three of them personally signed off on so many of the perks. But the defense has been laying the groundwork for a ready answer: Trump was just being generous.

"Donald Trump didn't know that Allen Weisselberg was cheating on Allen Weisselberg's taxes," as defense lawyer Susan Necheles told jurors in openings.

Weisselberg even teared up on the witness stand as he described "betraying" the Trump family by keeping them ignorant of the tax shenanigans for more than a decade. It's testimony that may stick with jurors — a display of apparent emotion in a trial otherwise packed with Excel spreadsheets and accounting ledger entries.

Ignorance has been a hallmark Trump defense through the years, floated as a hedge against fraud for his bogus claims of having "won" the 2020 election, and when there's been blowback for the company he's kept, including, most recently, white supremacist Nick Fuente.

In this trial, though, the ignorance defense goes into overdrive, and doesn't stop with a supposedly clueless Trump.

The defense has said it also plans to argue that Weisselberg and McConney themselves had little idea — at the time — that their tax-dodging was illegal or that it benefitted anyone but themselves, two key elements to proving corporate liability.

The pair told jurors they had relied on Donald Bender, the Trump Organization's longtime outside accountant from the Mazars, USA, accounting firm, to keep them honest, and they've implied that where Donald Trump knew nothing of the scheme, Donald Bender knew — or should have known— everything.

Weisselberg and McConney, the defense will argue, thought they had a tacit green light from Bender as they schemed, conspired and cheated — though both acknowledged on the stand that they now realize they committed tax fraud.

And they had only the vaguest idea, if any, that their scheme helped anyone beyond themselves, they told jurors.

"My intention was to save pre-tax dollars," Weisselberg testified on November 17, his second of three days on the witness stand.

"That was your sole focus, for you to get this pre-taxed dollars, correct?" Necheles, the defense lawyer, asked him.

"Yes," Weisselberg answered.

Defense closings are expected to last through Thursday, with prosecution closings set for Friday.

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