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Donald Trump: Legal experts see uphill battle in fraud case

  • By Kayla Epstein
  • BBC News, New York

Image source, Getty Images

This week marked the end of the most dramatic phase of Donald Trump’s business fraud trial in New York, during which prominent members of his family traveled one by one to Lower Manhattan to answer probing questions from prosecutors .

On Monday, Mr. Trump’s defense team will begin presenting its side of the story, calling the former president’s eldest son to the stand as its first witness. But legal analysts told the BBC that after two weeks of damaging testimony from members of the Trump family, saving their case would now be a herculean task.

“It’s been a disaster from a legal standpoint,” said Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and president of West Coast Trial Lawyers.

He believes that Mr. Trump “is going to lose this case, and will lose badly.”

In a worst-case scenario for Mr Trump, Judge Arthur Engoron could ban him and his co-defendants from doing business in New York and impose fines of at least $250 million (£204 million). sterling).

Perhaps the most damaging testimony of all is that of Mr. Trump himself. When he spoke Monday, he called New York Attorney General Letitia James a “political hack,” declared the case “a disgrace” and personally attacked Judge Engoron.

Judge Engoron repeatedly asked Mr. Trump’s lawyers to moderate his behavior and answer questions posed to him. If they did not do so, the judge vowed to “draw every negative conclusion possible.”

“If Donald Trump was anyone other than someone with Secret Service protection, he would have been imprisoned for contempt of court,” said Mitchell Epner, a lawyer who handles business litigation.

By directly answering prosecutors’ questions, Mr. Trump may have done even more damage to his cause.

At the heart of the attorney general’s lawsuit are documents known as financial disclosure statements, the balance sheets that the Trump Organization used to demonstrate the value of its properties and Mr. Trump’s net worth so that it could obtain loans and insurance rates.

The Attorney General’s Office claims these documents were fraudulently inflated to obtain deals they could not have obtained based on their true financial data.

The judge had already ruled that these documents were false. He now questions whether there was an intent to defraud, whether the defendants did it for personal gain and other accusations. The judge will also determine whether sanctions should be imposed and, if so, how serious they will be.


Judge Arthur Engoron expressed frustration with some of Donald Trump’s responses during his testimony

On the stand, Mr. Trump boasted that his properties like Mar-a-Lago and 40 Wall Street were actually worth more than their paper value, but acknowledged that he thought at least one of his properties could have been overvalued.

At another point, a prosecutor questioned him about the size of his Trump Tower penthouse, which the company said was more than 30,000 square feet but actually took up just over 10,000. Mr. Trump initially acknowledged that he thought the claimed acreage was “high,” but then began issuing broader estimates of its size.

During his testimony, Mr. Trump admitted that he had given his opinion and that some of those values ​​on paper were wrong.

But he insisted that even though he offered that contribution, he did not tell his accountants or employees which valuations to use.

Mr. Trump denies any wrongdoing and has accused the New York attorney general of waging a campaign of political persecution against him.

Speaking to reporters after Mr. Trump’s testimony, his lawyer, Alina Habba, said he had “built a great business, which is worth far more than this financial disclosure statement.”

She added that Ms. James, the attorney general, “doesn’t know how to get out of this because her policies don’t allow her to.”

His children, Donald Trump Jr, Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump, were all more composed in their testimony and took a different approach than their father. But they didn’t necessarily help the family.

Each, in their own way, attempted to shift the blame for the false documents onto the company’s accountants and lawyers.

Mr Trump Jr said he was unfamiliar with the standard accounting guidelines that businesses like his must adhere to. Eric Trump said he was not involved in creating the financial statements. Both are executive vice presidents of the Trump Organization.

They maintained this defense even though they were presented with various emails they sent or copied, or documents they signed, that contained information based on false financial statements.

Ms. Trump, who was not charged, tried to give prosecutors as little work as possible, repeatedly saying she did not remember the documents they presented to her.

When confronted with emails showing her discussing the terms of a loan Deutsche Bank was about to give her father for a real estate project, Mrs. Trump said she did not remember the exchanges .

His statements are unlikely to be helpful, Mr. Rahmani said. Mr. Trump Jr. and Eric Trump were “still responsible for certain allegations, like financial fraud, even if they didn’t have intent,” he observed.

And, he added, the Trump Organization was responsible for the actions of Donald Trump and his sons in the course of their employment.

Legal experts agreed that Mr. Trump’s defense team, led by veteran lawyer Chris Kise, would get off to a bad start next week.

Lawyers have spent the past few weeks attacking the judge for his alleged lack of impartiality. Further accusations of bias against Judge Engoron’s clerk resulted in angry reprimands from the judges and silence from the lawyers themselves.

“I’m sure the judge will rule against me, because he always rules against me,” Mr. Trump said Monday.

Despite the aggressive attacks, experts told the BBC that Mr Trump’s legal team had failed to weaken the state’s case.

“The defense needs someone to step in and justify these assessments,” Mr. Rahmani said. “Accountants, CPAs, real estate appraisers, appraisers. And they just haven’t done it yet.”

At this stage they face an uphill battle to save their case, analysts told the BBC.

“The reason they are in such a bad situation is because the judge has already concluded that the most important documents in this case are all false,” Mr. Epner said. “To date, the judge has also been presented with an enormous amount of evidence demonstrating that it was knowingly false and provided with intent to defraud.”

“Since they don’t have the ability to get into a Back to the Future DeLorean and go back in time,” Mr. Epner said of the defense team, “I can’t imagine what they can do to reverse this case.”

Video caption,

Watch: Trump’s New York fraud case explained… in 60 seconds

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