There was a moment, some two hours into Donald Trump’s turn on the witness stand in Manhattan state court on Monday, when the larger-than-life real estate tycoon and former US president appeared oddly wounded.
“He called me a fraud and he didn’t know anything about me,” Trump said, wagging his finger in the direction of the judge, Arthur Engoron. “It’s a terrible thing you’ve done. You know nothing about me!”
That came after another raw moment in which an emotional Trump fumed at a government lawyer: “People don’t know how good a company I built because people like you go around demeaning me!”
Trump was appearing in court to testify in a civil fraud case brought by the New York attorney-general in which he is accused of inflating reports of his net worth in order to secure loans on favourable terms and reap other economic benefits.
Engoron has already concluded that was the case, in an order handed down on the eve of the trial. The court proceedings are meant to determine the penalties the former president and his adult sons will face.
But for Trump, the trial is also something else: an unusual campaign stop in his quest to return to the White House and an occasion to defend the reputation for unassailable business success that lies at the core of his identity and is essential to his political career.
That might account for Trump’s seeming sensitivity. It might also explain why he decided to testify in the first place because legal experts had warned that doing so might prove perilous for the upcoming criminal trials in which the stakes involve possible prison time.
“His behaviour is not doing him any favours legally,” Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said in an email. “It almost seems as if Trump is attempting to help himself politically — at least with his base — by not co-operating with the judge or the New York attorney-general’s counsel and even accusing the judge and the AG of treating him unfairly.”
Trump lumbered to the witness stand just after 10am as the room brimmed with anticipation as to how he would confront his antagonists. As it happened, the former president did not lead with anger so much as a barrage of words, circular speeches and digressive statements that irked the judge and soon led to a stern warning for Trump’s lawyer, Christopher Kise.
“Mr Kise, can you control your client? This is not a political rally,” the judge said, his voice rising. Then, a few moments later: “I beseech you to control him, if you can. If you can’t, I will.”
Seated an arm’s length away, Trump wore the grin of a class clown who had succeeded at unnerving the teacher.
For Kevin Wallace, a lawyer for the attorney-general, examining Trump was like trying to corral a thunderstorm.
Many of Wallace’s questions sought “yes or no” answers as to whether the value of a particular property in Trump’s annual “statement of financial condition” was “true and accurate”.
Trump dispensed with small-minded accountancy rules and replied instead with the chutzpah of a New York property developer. “It’s the best location in New York,” he said of the retail space at Trump Tower, which he had pegged at $348mn in 2014. “I wouldn’t sell it for that number.”
On another occasion, Trump said he was capable of valuing a property just by looking at it. That may have been the approach the Trump Organization took in Scotland, where it boosted the value of its Aberdeen golf course by $245mn in a single year, according to a spreadsheet presented by the attorney-general, apparently based on development plans that were never fulfilled.
“It’s sort of like a painting,” Trump explained. “You can do pretty much what you want to do. The land is there.”
Banks worry foremost about cash, Trump told the court, rejecting Wallace’s suggestion that he had inflated his personal wealth to avoid breaching loan covenants. “I’ve had a lot of cash for a long time,” the former president said. “That’s all they care about.”
There was unexpected tenderness for his fallen lieutenant, Allen Weisselberg, the longtime former chief financial officer of the Trump Organization who served three months in jail earlier this year after pleading guilty to a tax evasion scheme.
“People went after him viciously and violently just because he worked for me,” Trump said. “I feel very badly for him.”
Trump did make one concession. He allowed that somebody mistakenly overvalued his penthouse apartment — to the tune of more than $200mn, according to Engoron — presumably by tripling its square footage because it was a triplex. “I can see how it was probably done,” he said.
The lunch break appeared to soothe Trump. Afterwards he looked bored, more than anything. Arms folded across his chest, he repeatedly told Wallace that if the net worth recorded in his various financial statements was inaccurate, it was not materially so. In any case, he said, his true net worth was certainly far larger because the financial statements did not include the value of the famed Trump brand.
The exchanges felt less confrontational. The snarl eased. And then the fury revived.
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” he fumed at Wallace, calling the case “a disgrace”.
“Everyone’s trying to figure out why you’re doing this,” Trump said, noting that his lenders had been repaid in full and on time — possibly ahead of time. “Nobody understands it. I understand it. It’s called politics.”
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