On Monday, former President Donald Trump faced — in person — the start of what may prove to be one of the most humiliating chapters of his life. That chapter will unfold in a New York courtroom, as New York Attorney General Letitia James and her team lay out their evidence of what they say was rampant business fraud conducted by Trump, his two adult sons and the Trump Organization.
Trump, having parlayed his self-proclaimed success as a real estate tycoon into media celebrity and ultimately the presidency of the United States, has reason to be worried. Last Tuesday, Judge Arthur Engoron ruled that Trump had engaged in massive fraud for years by overstating the value of his assets to lenders and others.
Trump, having parlayed his self-proclaimed success as a real estate tycoon into media celebrity and ultimately the presidency of the United States, has reason to be worried.
Laced with opprobrium, Engoron’s 35-page, single-spaced judicial opinion ruled that Trump had committed persistent fraud, as defined by a New York statute, by preparing, certifying and submitting false and misleading financial statements to lenders. To prevail on this claim, the attorney general had to prove that Trump’s Statements of Financial Condition were false and misleading and that the defendants repeatedly used these false documents in transactions. By granting summary judgment in favor of the attorney general, the court ruled that James met the burden of proof and that no trial is needed to decide this claim. The facts demonstrating fraud are undisputed.
Trump’s motion seeking judgment in his favor was denied in that same ruling.
On social media, Trump called Engoron a “DERANGED New York State Judge.” But tired insults won’t stop this legal juggernaut. The searing spotlight of a public trial will probe Trump’s lifelong mystique as a shrewd, successful real estate developer accumulating massive wealth.
Trump is fighting fires on all sides. A defendant charged with felonies in four separate criminal indictments, he seems to be laser-focused on the immediate threat of this civil case. Why else would he decide to attend the start of that trial, which is estimated to last three months? Trump’s decision to attend is particularly noteworthy given his past behavior. Remember, he elected not to show up at the civil trial of E. Jean Carroll’s claims of sexual abuse and defamation. Even though the trial resulted in a $5 million jury verdict against Trump, he never appeared in that courtroom or faced his accuser in person.
And yet, clearly something about this trial seems to have gotten under his skin. As Lisa Rubin observed, unlike past court appearances, Trump’s fury was on full display on Monday.
For one thing, it may be harder for Trump to argue he is the victim of a corrupt criminal justice system. Trump has systematically ridiculed criminal charges, spinning the indictments as illegal political prosecutions. And he has profited handsomely by fundraising on this theme, collecting more than $4 million after having surrendered and been booked in Georgia. Part of that cash was raised by monetizing items emblazoned with his scowling mug shot.
Should he win the presidential election in November 2024, Trump would presumably be able to halt his federal criminal cases. It will be harder to halt state criminal prosecutions in Georgia and New York, although he surely would try. But James’ civil trial is beyond Trump’s reach, even if he is elected next year. And James’ case targets Trump’s all-important patina of extravagant wealth.
After launching his initial presidential campaign in 2015, Trump claimed to be worth $10 billion. He has repeatedly bragged about his own business acumen, both to bolster his image and to support his qualifications for the presidency.
Engoron must now decide how much the defendants must pay in disgorgement of their profits because of their fraud. The attorney general is seeking $250 million. Engoron must also decide whether Trump and the other defendants acted intentionally, knowing that their financial documents were false. He must decide whether the false valuations were significant — a concept known as materiality.
Engoron has expressed caustic disapproval of the legal maneuvering by Trump’s legal team, as well as Trump’s valuation practices. Last week, the court criticized Trump lawyers’ legal argument as “pure sophistry,” sanctioned seven of them for making “bogus arguments” and fined each $7,500. After summarizing Trump’s arguments, the court was blunt in its disapproval: “This is a fantasy world; not the real world.”
The court has also already canceled the New York business certificates of all entities controlled by the defendants. These certifications are needed in New York to conduct business. The ruling called for the appointment of a receiver for these businesses, and it named a retired judge to monitor the Trump Organization. Trump’s lawyers have promised to appeal.
As we’ve seen repeatedly over the past decade, Trump is adept at dismissing and minimizing the many losses he has racked up as both a politician and a businessman. He plays the victim card; he attacks his prosecutors as corrupt. But there are some humiliations that aren’t so easily swatted away. And a case that could expose the lie behind his titan of industry persona is one of them.