Trump saves fireworks for outside court on first day of fraud trial

Not many defendants would dare to brand the judge overseeing their case “deranged”, call for them to be kicked out of office and dismiss the suit against them as a “witch-hunt”. Not many defendants are Donald Trump.

On the first day of a civil fraud case that could decide the future of his business career, Trump cut an angry, uncomfortable figure. “This is a judge that should be out of office,” he told reporters as the court broke for lunch. “This is a judge that some people say could be charged criminally for what he’s doing.”

In court, in a navy suit and light blue tie, Trump was a quieter presence. Hunched at times and conferring with his lawyers, he mostly listened quietly as lawyers for the New York attorney general outlined their case.

In a hushed courtroom with secret service agents posted on all sides of the room, Trump sat directly facing the New York judge Arthur Engoron. As the judge and the lawyers conferred, Trump gave the occasional scoff and eye roll but the fireworks were saved for outside the court.

The charges against Trump are serious. After a three-year investigation the attorney general Letitia James, also present, has accused Trump and his sons of “grossly inflating” the value of the properties in order to secure business loans. Engoron agreed in a pre-trial ruling and has suspended the Trumps’ business licenses – effectively ending their ability to conduct business in New York.

“The defendants were lying year after year after year,” said the state prosecutor Kevin Wallace. As Wallace repeated prosecutors’ claims that Trump inflated his net worth between $812m to $2.2bn, Trump visibly shook his head.

“By hiding their true resources… they convinced these banks to take on hidden risks of hundreds of millions of dollars,” Wallace said. While Trump can inflate his net worth to the media, he “cannot do it while conducting business in New York”, Wallace said.

Trump and his lawyers seemed to be talking about an entirely different case and an entirely different man. In their opening statements, Trump’s lawyer showered the former president with praise, saying that Trump “has made billions of dollars building the most successful real estate empire in the world”.

There were no “unjust profits, and there were no victims”, the Trump lawyer Christopher Kise, argued. The claims are over “a handful of loan transactions, they were all successful”. The banks who made the loans, they argue, made hundreds of millions from the deals.

The Trump lawyer Alina Habba went so far as to say that Trump actually undervalued his “Mona Lisa” properties. “We have renowned experts that say properties like Mar-a-Lago are worth over $1bn,” she said. “I bet you there is someone who would buy that property for way over $1bn.”

“That is not fraud, that is real estate,” she added. “I had the pleasure of visiting these properties, and they are not humble properties.”

A Palm Beach appraiser valued the Mar-a-Lago property at $27m in 2020. Engoron, in a pre-trial ruling, called this kind of difference “a fantasy world, not the real world” that Trump is operating in.

Habba also told the judge that the attorney general’s office had brought the case forward on political motivations, that people are mad that Trump’s real estate brand is so successful.

“There are probably a lot of people in this room that don’t like that and that’s why we’re here,” Habba said.

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In remarks to Habba after her opening statement, Judge Engoron told Habba that the defense team had tried to get “the entire case dismissed because it is a ‘witch-hunt’”, he said, holding up air quotes with his finger. “I denied that,” he reminded Habba. Trump repeatedly shook his head as the judge spoke to Habba.

Engoron is known for his use of puns and light humor on the stand. In his statement opening the trial, he told the courtroom: “I promise to do my best. Despite my lame attempts at humor, as I said in an earlier phase [of the trial], I take my job very seriously.”

In another moment, right before Kise started his opening statement, Engoron warned against feedback from the court’s microphone.

“As long as there’s no feedback,” he said. “I’m already getting enough feedback about this case.”

Outside the court the usual spectacle that follows Trump assembled: dozens of cameras filmed him walking up the court steps, flashing cameras in his face as he strolled into the courtroom, reporters shouting his name. A small crowd gathered in Foley Square, the park across the street, to ogle at the scene. Some held signs denouncing the president. “No one is above the law,” one said. “Lies have consequences,” declared another.

Exactly how large those consequences are will be for Engoron to decide in the coming weeks – and possibly months. James has asked for a fine of $250m and wants the Trumps banned from doing business in the state. The Trumps deny all charges and are fighting the license suspension.

While the trial got off to an explosive start, there will be other big days ahead. Among the witnesses to be called are Trump’s children, his former right-hand man turned nemesis Michael Cohen and Trump himself. Then we can expect the inevitable appeals and the appeals of the appeals.

Whether Trump himself will be back in court also remains to be seen. He is on the witness list but it is unclear as yet whether he will testify. Trump hinted he would be back: “I’ll be seeing a lot of you,” he told reporters, “because this is a horrible thing that’s happening to this country”.