November 9, 2023 - 1:49 pm
NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s lawyers were thwarted Thursday in their longshot bid to put an immediate end to the New York civil fraud trial that threatens the former president’s real estate empire.
The judge didn’t rule on the request, but he indicated that the trial will go on as scheduled Monday with Donald Trump Jr. returning to the stand as the first defense witness.
Trump’s lawyers had asked Judge Arthur Engoron to cut the trial short and issue a verdict clearing Trump, his company and top executives including Trump Jr. of wrongdoing.
They made the request at the halfway point in the trial of New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit, arguing that state lawyers had failed to prove their case. James alleges that Trump and other defendants duped banks, insurers and others by inflating his wealth on financial statements.
Engoron said the defense’s arguments seeking what’s known as a directed verdict were “taken under advisement” and did not address them further when he returned to court Thursday afternoon to rule on another matter.
In that ruling, Engoron gave Trump’s lawyers a victory, allowing them to call several expert witnesses in an attempt to refute testimony that Trump’s financial statements afforded him better loan terms, insurance premiums and were a factor in dealmaking.
The judge, who’s had a history of ruling against Trump, has signaled interest in seeing the trial to its conclusion, asking defense lawyers for witness schedules and pegging closing arguments close to Christmas.
In seeking to short-circuit the case, Trump lawyer Christopher Kise argued that state lawyers had failed to meet “any legal standard” to prove allegations of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.
“There’s no victim. There’s no complainant. There’s no injury. All of that is established now by the evidence,” Kise argued.
State lawyer Kevin Wallace responded that there was no basis to end the trial, saying the evidence is “more than sufficient to continue to final verdict.”
Trump, on the stand Monday between barbs for his adversaries, denied wrongdoing and said lenders were “extremely happy” doing business with him. If anything, he testified, his financial statements lowballed his wealth and the value of assets such as his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Kise implored Engoron to give special weight to Trump’s testimony, citing the ex-president’s decades of experience as a real estate developer. When talking real estate, “if my choices were Donald Trump or Attorney General James, respectfully, I would go with Donald Trump,” Kise said.
He argued that the Democratic attorney general, in pursuit of a political opponent, was trying to “substitute her judgment for that of the banks and, frankly, for that of someone who has been involved in the real estate industry for 50 years.”
Defense lawyer Clifford Robert pressed the judge to dismiss claims against Trump’s elder sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr. The attorney argued that state lawyers had failed to prove that the sons, whom Trump appointed to run his company when he went to the White House in 2017, worked on the ex-president’s financial statements.
The sons, who signed off on some documents attesting to their father’s wherewithal, testified that they trusted accountants and lawyers for assurance the papers were accurate. Robert said they “acted appropriately” in doing so.
“My clients have been dragged into what is essentially a fight between the attorney general and their father, but here we are,” Robert said. “The time has come that we need to put an end to it.”
Wallace countered that Trump and his sons each signed documents saying that they were responsible for the preparation and fair presentation of the financial statements, which Engoron has already ruled were false and misleading.
Thursday’s arguments came a day after Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump testified as the state’s last witness. She had unsuccessfully fought a subpoena.
Directed verdict requests are common in civil trials, though they’re somewhat infrequently granted. In Trump’s trial, Engoron is deciding the outcome, rather than a jury.
Before the trial, Engoron ruled that Trump, his company and other defendants committed fraud by exaggerating his net worth and the value of assets on his financial statements, which were used to obtain loans and make deals.
Engoron’s pretrial fraud ruling came with provisions that could strip the ex-president of such marquee properties as Trump Tower, though an appeals court is allowing him to remain in control of his holdings for now.
The state rested its case Wednesday after six weeks of testimony from more than two dozen witnesses. James is seeking the return of what she says is more than $300 million in ill-gotten gains and a ban on Trump and other defendants from doing business in New York.
Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump testified last week. When Trump Jr. returns to the stand on Monday, he’ll be questioned by defense lawyers including his own. Trump company executives, outside accountants who worked on Trump’s financial statements and bank executives who worked on his loans also have testified as state witnesses.
Kise emphasized that lender Deutsche Bank made its own adjustments to the asset values listed on Trump’s financial statements, giving “haircuts” to the estimates for Trump Tower and other properties, and decided to lend him hundreds of millions of dollars anyway. Adjustments amounted to $2 billion in some years, documents showed.
Kise also attacked Trump lawyer-turned-foe Michael Cohen’s credibility. He said Cohen’s “pathetic performance” undermined the state’s case when he backtracked from his initial testimony that Trump had directed him to boost the value of assets to “whatever number Trump told us to.”
Pressed on cross-examination during his Oct. 25 testimony, Cohen conceded that Trump never told him to inflate the numbers on his personal statement — though Cohen later said Trump signaled it indirectly, and “we understood what he wanted.” Robert asked at that point for an immediate directed verdict, which Engoron denied.