Correspondent in Washington
Donald Trump is back in New York to defend his empire, in a new trial where he risks his properties, his fortune, and the billionaire image that founded his celebrity. The former president appeared in court on Monday to respond to a civil charge of fraud opened a year ago by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Trump, his two eldest sons and the family company Trump Organization are accused of fraudulently inflating the value of their assets from $1.9 billion to $3.6 billion per year between 2011 and 2021, in order to save hundreds of millions dollars on bank loans and insurance.
Trump does not face prison time in this new trial, as in other proceedings to which he is the subject. But he is risking the jewels of his real estate empire, such as the famous Trump Tower, the skyscraper with the golden facade on Fifth Avenue. This building, where he owns a luxurious duplex, is one of his most symbolic properties. This is where episodes of the series The Apprentice were filmed, which made him a national celebrity, and where he launched his presidential campaign in 2015 by descending the atrium escalator.
The trial takes place without a jury, the judge deciding according to this procedure both the verdict and the sentence. New York Judge Arthur Engoron ruled last week that the prosecutor's office had largely proven fraud, and considered that the arguments presented by Trump's lawyers to explain the way his assets were valued in order to obtain Loans and insurance policies were clearly 'bogus'. “In their world… the rules evaporate by magic,” the judge wrote, “It is an imaginary world, not the real world.”
The trial should therefore mainly focus on the amount of penalties that Trump and his sons will have to pay. The judge could ask for even heavier fines than those requested by the prosecutor. Trump could face $250 million in fines and be banned from obtaining new loans in New York for five years, as well as from operating or owning businesses in New York state.
In addition to Trump Tower, other Trump properties could be affected, including his golf clubs in New York State or even his sons' apartments, whose companies that own them could be placed in liquidation.
The trial could also reveal all of Trump's business activities, known for the opacity of their financial arrangements.
The prosecutor's office maintains that the Trump Organization used the fraudulent statements to obtain loans intended to expand its real estate empire, purchasing properties such as the former Washington Central Post Office, now the Trump Hotel, the skyscraper of the Trump International Tower or Trump Golf Club in Miami, Florida.
“My message is simple: no matter how powerful you are, no matter how much money you think you have, no one is above the law,” Letitia James said Monday morning. “The law is both powerful and fragile, and we will prove our point in court.”
One of the first depositions in the trial Monday was from Michael Cohen, Trump's former lawyer, who explained how he was responsible during his time working for him for systematically overvaluing properties. “The goal was to increase the value of each asset in order to reach the number that President Trump wanted,” Cohen said in his recorded deposition.
Michael Cohen's testimony before Congress in 2019 was the impetus for the current prosecution. “This trial is the final blow for Donald,” the lawyer declared on Sunday on the MSNBC channel, where he was questioned by presenter Jen Psaki, Joe Biden’s former spokesperson at the White House. “When I worked at the Trump Organization, his biggest fear was always losing all his money and no longer being seen as the billionaire he claimed to be,” Cohen said. “I would like him to look me in the face and understand that he is the cause of this situation and that this is the first time in his life that he will have to be held accountable and take responsibility for the repercussions of his actions. personal.”
Trump’s presence at the opening of a trial where he was not required to appear indicates the seriousness of the matter. “It’s a scam. It’s a sham,” Trump said upon arriving in court. It’s an “attempt to harm me in an election,” he added, “and I don’t think the people of this country are going to accept that.”
True to form, the former president publicly and personally attacked Judge Engoron, a flamboyant democrat. “A deranged, Trump-hating judge who opened this bogus case in a New York court at a speed never before seen.”
He also denounced this trial as a political maneuver, linking it to other accusations for which he must answer before other state or federal courts, and which notably concern his attempt to stay in power in 2020 or for having retained classified documents after his departure from the White House. “This is the FIRST TRIAL in the series in the Democrats' witch hunt to destroy our 2024 presidential campaign,” Trump posted Sunday on his Truth Social network. “The left hopes that if they can harm me financially, I will end my campaign and forever abandon our country to the radical left Democrats and the deep state. They want to deprive me of my freedom, my finances and harass my family. But they can never deprive me of my resilience, my courage and my determination to save this country.
The criminal and civil trials that have multiplied against Trump since the start of the year have so far mainly resulted in increasing his support in the Republican electorate, making him the big favorite in the party's primaries. The number and variety of lawsuits are used by Trump to present himself as the victim of a campaign of political persecution, while confusing the public with the nature of the facts with which he is accused.