I sat in a courtroom on Monday at 60 Centre Street, the crown jewel of Manhattan state courts, to watch the start of a trial that is essentially about Donald Trump’s crown jewels: his vaunted portfolio of commercial and residential real estate.
The trial — which will be decided by a judge, not a jury — will determine whether Trump, his eldest sons and others falsified business records, filed false financial statements, and committed insurance fraud by intentionally exaggerating and deflating the stated value of those properties. And it will also determine the appropriate penalties for Trump and others, potentially including the "disgorgement" of $250 million or more — and even the forced dissolution of his real estate empire.
Here's what stood out during Monday's proceedings in Trump's civil fraud brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James' office.
Team Trump appealed to multiple audiences, but not the actual decision-maker
Based on the opening statements, it wasn’t always clear what this case was about. After all, Trump lawyer Chris Kise’s presentation was a detailed, if at times ponderous, review of generally accepted accounting principles (“GAAP”) and the elasticity of GAAP where real estate valuation is concerned.
At times, it felt academic, if not like a rough sketch of the appellate argument Team Trump has been clear they are already planning to make. By contrast, though, Alina Habba, who, at this point, is one of Trump’s longest-serving surrogates and lawyers, zoomed out to the 50,000-foot level — while floating in the clouds of the case. Yet her opening was hardly placid. Fiery and combative, she insisted Trump persistently undervalued his trophy properties, including Mar-a-Lago, which she maintained would easily fetch $1.5 billion on the open market, and his Doral golf course and resort, which she asserted would command a similar price.
Kise and Habba could not have been more different in tone or approach, but their openings shared one key attribute: Neither seemed to be geared to the sole decision maker here, Manhattan trial judge Arthur Engoron. Instead, if Kise was practicing for appeals to come, Habba’s audience was their visibly riled-up client.
Even inside the courtroom, Trump's anger was apparent
When I attended Trump’s June arraignment in the federal, classified documents case, he did not seem happy, but his overall demeanor was stoic, even calm. On Monday, however, Trump's fury was on full display, even when he was simply attending the trial. He shook his head and crossed his arms as Engoron spoke. He even physically prodded Kise during discussions about trial logistics, such as the validity of subpoenas Trump served on the accounting firm Mazars on the eve of trial and the mechanics of testimony from former Deutsche Bank employee Nicholas Haigh.
A dramatic exit — and a dry witness examination
But nothing compared to the drama of one of Trump’s exits, when he walked slowly past James, seated in the first row, narrowed his eyes, and glared at her. That look might even have been his entire reason for attending the trial on Monday.
It certainly wasn’t the prosecutors' first witness: Mazars accountant Donald Bender, who was asked about his 2011 engagement letter with the Trump Organization and the final statement of financial condition for that year. Not only was Monday's examination dry, but as Engoron noted at the end of the day, unless the attorney general's office can show the relevance of those documents to transactions completed after July 2014, the earliest date under the statute of limitations, they could be inadmissible as well.
That statute of limitations is also what Trump was referring to when, during remarks to the media today, he argued that an appeals court has already eliminated “80%” of the case. That’s because eight of ten bank loans at issue were, according to Trump’s team, outside the relevant time period. Whether that’s how the judge sees it remains to be seen. Watch this space.