Donald Trump testified in a New York court on Monday in the civil fraud case threatening to cripple his real estate empire, the first former US president to take the stand as a defendant in more than a century.
The 77-year-old Trump, dressed in a dark blue suit and tie with an American flag on his lapel, was sworn in shortly after 10:00 am (1500 GMT) to testify in the Manhattan courtroom before Judge Arthur Engoron.
Trump, his eldest sons Don Jr and Eric, and other Trump Organization executives are accused of exaggerating the value of their real estate assets by billions of dollars to obtain more favorable bank loans and insurance terms.
Trump dismissed allegations the company’s statements of financial condition were fraudulent, and said “they were not really documents that the banks paid much attention to.”
He said the value of the “Trump brand” was also not taken into account.
“I became president because of my brand,” he said under questioning from Kevin Wallace, a lawyer for the New York attorney general’s office which brought the case.
At one point, the judge complained that Trump’s responses were too long to what were “yes” or “no” questions.
“Please, just answer the questions, no speeches,” Engoron said before asking one of Trump’s lawyers to “control your client.”
“This is not a political rally,” the judge said.
Before taking the stand, Trump, the frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, spoke to reporters outside the courtroom, denouncing the case as “election interference.”
“It’s a very sad situation for our country,” he said. “It usually takes place in third world countries and banana republics.”
– ‘Numbers, my friends, don’t lie’ –
New York state Attorney General Letitia James told reporters before Trump’s arrival that the real estate tycoon “consistently misrepresented and inflated the value of his assets.”
“Before he takes the stand, I am certain that he will engage in name-calling and taunts and race-baiting and call this a witch hunt,” James said. “But at the end of the day, the only thing that matters are the facts and the numbers.
“And numbers, my friends, don’t lie.”
Trump has repeatedly attacked James, who is Black, as “racist” and Engoron, calling the judge “unhinged” and a “Trump-hating radical left, Democrat operative.”
Engoron has responded by slapping Trump with $15,000 in fines for violating a partial gag order imposed after he bashed the judge’s clerk on social media.
Trump’s testimony follows that of his sons Don Jr. and Eric, who took the stand last week and blamed accountants for the financial statements of the company.
According to The Washington Post, the last former president to testify publicly as a defendant was Theodore Roosevelt, who took the stand during a 1915 libel trial.
Trump has already given testimony twice in connection with this case, both times in depositions behind closed doors.
– First of several trials –
Trump and his sons do not risk going to jail, but face up to $250 million in penalties and potential removal from the management of the family company.
Even before opening arguments, Engoron ruled that James’ office had already shown “conclusive evidence” that Trump had overstated his net worth on financial documents by between $812 million and $2.2 billion between 2014 and 2021.
As a result, the judge ordered the liquidation of the companies managing the assets in question, such as the Trump Tower and 40 Wall Street skyscrapers in Manhattan.
That order is on hold pending appeal, but its potentially sweeping consequences highlight the high stakes for the former president.
The tycoon’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who left the Trump Organization in 2017 to become a White House advisor, is not a codefendant in the case but has also been ordered to testify, possibly as soon as Wednesday.
The civil fraud trial is one of several legal battles Trump faces as he seeks to recapture the presidency.
In March, Trump — who was impeached twice while in the White House — faces a trial on charges that he conspired to overturn the results of the 2020 election, which he lost to President Joe Biden.