Judge peppers lawyers in prelude to trial of New York's business fraud lawsuit against Trump

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Former President Donald Trump greets supporters at the Treehouse Pub & Eatery, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Bettendorf, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

NEW YORK – A New York judge peppered Donald Trump's lawyers with questions Friday — sometimes admonishing them — as they tried to persuade the court to throw out a civil lawsuit brought by New York’s attorney general accusing the former president and his company of deceiving banks, insurers and others by exaggerating his wealth.

At times, Judge Arthur Engoron argued with Trump attorney Christopher Kise. In one case the judge ended a back-and-forth by simply saying, “Disagree.”

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Later, the judge pounded his fist on the top of his bench in disagreement with Kise’s interpretation of one law, opining the intent of that law is, “You cannot make false statements.”

The hearing ended without any rulings, and arguments will resume Wednesday. Regardless, Friday's court proceedings served as prelude to a trial that could begin as soon as Oct. 2.

A lawyer for New York Attorney General Letitia James also tried to persuade Engoron to hand down a summary judgment on the lawsuit's most significant claim — that Trump committed fraud by inflating property values and exaggerating his net worth by as much as $3.6 billion on annual financial statements used by him and his company to secure financing.

The judge also questioned the state's lawyer, Assistant New York Attorney General Andrew Amer, but his tone was less combative.

At one point, Engoron reminded those in the packed courtroom that he was trying to be fair to both sides, suggesting that the tenor of his questioning shouldn't be seen as an indication of how he will ultimately rule.

Last week, Trump’s attorneys filed a lawsuit accusing Engoron of abusing his authority, one of several lawsuits Trump has filed against the judges overseeing his various trials.

A state appellate court is weighing whether the suit against Engoron will proceed. If so, it could push back a trial date.

Trump's lawyers had previously sought a delay, but Engoron turned them down, and the judge Friday rebuffed some of their arguments — including one that asserted that the attorney general has no legal standing to bring the former president to court.

If the trial proceeds, the attorney general's office could call to the witness stand Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his former chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. Trump is also on the government's witness list, as are his two sons, Eric and Don Jr., but it remains to be seen if the former president will appear in court.

James, a Democrat, sued Trump and the Trump Organization a year ago, accusing him of inflating the value of assets like skyscrapers, golf courses and his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

But Trump's attorney, Kise, hailed Trump's “investment genius” during the Friday hearing at a court in Manhattan.

“This is why billionaires are billionaires,” Kise said.

He said the property valuations the former president used in financial documents were not meant to be formal appraisals, but Trump's predictions of what the properties could be worth in the future.

Among the allegations made by James were that Trump claimed his Trump Tower apartment in Manhattan — a three-story penthouse replete with gold-plated fixtures — was nearly three times its actual size and valued the property at $327 million. No apartment in New York City has ever sold for close to that amount, James said.

Trump valued Mar-a-Lago as high as $739 million — more than 10 times a more reasonable estimate of its worth. Trump’s figure for the private club and residence was based on the idea that the property could be developed for residential use, but deed terms prohibit that, James said.

“Defendants have clearly stepped through the looking glass,” said Amer, the lawyer representing the attorney general. He said there was “a complete disconnect” between the real-world market value of Trump’s properties and “the grossly inflated” valuation asserted by the former president in his financial paperwork.

Trump has denied wrongdoing, arguing in sworn testimony that it didn’t matter what he put on his financial statements because they have a disclaimer that says they shouldn’t be trusted.

James’ lawsuit is one of several legal headaches for Trump as he campaigns for a return to the White House in 2024. He has been indicted four times — accused in Georgia and Washington, D.C., of plotting to overturn his 2020 election loss, in Florida of hoarding classified documents, and in Manhattan of falsifying business records related to hush money paid on his behalf.

James’ lawsuit is a civil, not criminal matter, so it does not carry the potential of prison time. She has asked the court to ban Trump and his three eldest children from ever again running a company based New York. She also wants $250 million in penalties, and a five-year ban on Trump and the Trump Organization engaging in commercial real estate acquisitions.

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