By Jack Queen and Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A defiant Donald Trump attacked New York’s attorney general and the judge overseeing his civil fraud trial as it began on Monday, with a state lawyer accusing the former president of generating more than $100 million by lying about his real estate empire.
Attorney General Letitia James is seeking at least $250 million in fines, a permanent ban against Trump and his sons Donald Jr and Eric from running businesses in New York and a five-year commercial real estate ban against Trump and the Trump Organization.
Testimony in the Manhattan courtroom began following opening statements, with Donald Bender, a partner at Mazars USA and longtime accountant for Trump’s businesses, as the state’s first witness.
Trump told reporters before the trial began that the case was a “scam,” a “sham” and a political vendetta by James, and during a lunch break called the Democrat “a corrupt person, a terrible person. Driving people out of New York.”
He was equally unsparing of the judge, Arthur Engoron, calling him a partisan Democrat who is using the case to interfere with the 2024 presidential election, where Trump holds a big lead for the Republican nomination.
“This is a judge that should be disbarred,” Trump told reporters. “This is a judge that should be out of office.”
Trump’s election campaign used the start of the trial for fundraising, saying he was defending his family and reputation from New York Democrats it called “corrupt tyrants.”
The case concerns accusations by the attorney general that Trump inflated his assets and his own net worth from 2011 to 2021 to obtain favorable bank loans and lower insurance premiums.
‘MONA LISA PROPERTIES’
James has accused Trump of materially overvaluing assets including his Trump Tower penthouse apartment in Manhattan, his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and various office towers and golf clubs, and inflated his own fortune by as much as $2.2 billion.
“This isn’t business as usual, and this isn’t how sophisticated parties deal with each other,” Kevin Wallace, a lawyer from James’ office, said in his opening statement. “These are not victimless crimes.”
Christopher Kise, a lawyer for Trump, countered in his opening statement that Trump’s financials were entirely legal.
“He has made a fortune literally being right about real estate investments,” Kise said. “There was no intent to defraud, there was no illegality, there was no default, there was no breach, there was no reliance from the banks, there were no unjust profits, and there were no victims.”
Alina Habba, another lawyer, separately told Engoron that Trump’s assets were “Mona Lisa properties” that could fetch premium prices if Trump sold them.
Trump wore a dark blue suit, a brighter blue tie and an American flag pin on his lapel in court.
As he entered, he called the case “a continuation of the single greatest witch hunt of all time.”
James said her office was ready to prove its case.
“The law is both powerful and fragile,” she said. “No matter how much money you think you may have, no one is above the law.”
Engoron is hearing evidence without a jury.
Last week, the judge found Trump, his adult sons and 10 of his companies liable for fraud, describing in scathing terms how the defendants made up valuations.
He said these included valuing the Trump Tower apartment as if it were three times its actual size and worth $327 million, and estimating that Mar-a-Lago was worth up to $739 million though its assessed value was no more than $28 million.
The judge canceled business certificates for companies controlling pillars of Trump’s empire, and said he would appoint receivers to oversee their dissolution.
Trump responded at the time by calling Engoron “deranged.”
The trial will review six additional claims including falsifying business records, insurance fraud and conspiracy, and address how much in penalties the defendants should pay.
Before opening arguments, Engoron described himself as a generalist on the law. “One thing I know a lot about is the definition of fraud,” he said.
MANY LEGAL WOES
Wallace played an excerpt from a deposition where Michael Cohen, who had been Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer but has since turned against his former boss, said the goal was “to attain the number that Mr. Trump wanted.”
Kise countered that just because people disagree about valuations does not mean one valuation must be fraudulent.
“They are not designed to be absolutes,” he said.
In his testimony, Bender said he relied on information provided by Trump and his companies when compiling Trump’s personal financial statements.
“The original numbers come from the Trump Organization, and any changes that would have been made at the end would have been approved by the Trump Organization,” Bender said.
Trump frequently spoke with Habba while Bender was on the stand. Bender is expected to resume his testimony on Tuesday.
The trial is scheduled to run through early December.
More than 150 people including Cohen could testify, though much of the trial may be a battle of experts opining on financial documents.
Trump also faces several other legal headaches, which have been a financial drain, and made him the first sitting or former U.S. president to be criminally charged.
He has been criminally charged in Washington over his efforts to undo his loss in the 2020 presidential election, in Georgia over moves to reverse election results there, in Florida over his handling of classified documents upon leaving office, and in New York over hush money payments to a porn star.
Trump has denied all wrongdoing and pleaded not guilty.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen and Jack Queen in New York; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Nick Zieminski and Grant McCool)