Trump’s Credibility, Coherence and Control Face Test on Witness Stand
Donald J. Trump took the rally stage on a scorching August day in New Hampshire, a political shark, brazen and sly, as he ridiculed his legal opponents as “racist” and “deranged.”
On Monday, the former president will come face-to-face with one of those opponents, but he’ll be a predator far from his natural environment — in a courtroom rather than on the stump.
New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, will call Mr. Trump to the witness stand at his own civil fraud trial in Manhattan, where, under oath and under fire, the former president will try to convince a single skeptical judge — not a jury — that he did not inflate his net worth to defraud banks and insurers.
Privately, Mr. Trump has told advisers that he is not concerned about his time on the stand. He held preparation sessions when he was in New York attending the trial and will again over the weekend before he makes his appearance after court begins on Monday morning, according to people briefed on the matter.
The former president believes he can fight or talk his way out of most situations. Frequent visits to the courtroom have also given Mr. Trump familiarity with the unwieldy proceeding, where he projects control, often whispering in his lawyers’ ears, prompting their objections to the attorney general’s questions.
Yet Mr. Trump is deeply, personally enraged by this trial — and by the fact that his children have had to testify, several people who have spoken with him said — and he may not be able to restrain himself on the stand.
The testimony will push Mr. Trump far outside his comfort zone of social media and the rally stage, where he is a master of mockery, a no-holds barred flamethrower who relishes most opportunities to attack foes. He leveraged that persona during his days as a tabloid businessman and fixture of New York’s tabloids and found that it worked just as well in the 2016 presidential race. He has since taken control of the Republican Party, and his style has become a defining influence in contemporary politics.
The witness stand is a different venue. It’s a seat that requires care and control, where lying is a crime and emotional outbursts can land you in contempt of court. Another risk during his time on the stand: Mr. Trump, 77, has been showing signs of strain and age on the campaign trail, mixing up the names of foreign leaders and at one point confusing which city he was in.
The test of the former president’s credibility, coherence and self-control could supply his opponents with ammunition on the campaign trail, where Mr. Trump is the leading Republican contender for the White House.
Along with the civil fraud trial, Mr. Trump faces four criminal indictments from prosecutors up and down the East Coast. While the varied legal woes present a costly distraction in the midst of his third White House run, Mr. Trump has managed to bring the campaign trail to the courthouse, where he casts himself as a political martyr under attack from Democrats like Ms. James.
Mr. Trump, of course, is no stranger to the courtroom. He has taken the witness stand in at least two other civil trials, most recently a decade ago, in a Chicago case related to his property there. He was cranky and sometimes combative, but ultimately won.
During a long and litigious career, he has also testified under oath in numerous depositions — more than 100 by his own estimate — and he has made it something of a sport to spar with his interrogators. His spontaneity under oath may have cost him: He has lost several lawsuits, and his depositions have often been used against him.
A trial is far weightier than a deposition, and it takes place in a more controlled environment. Mr. Trump’s lawyers have long highlighted for him the perils of speaking under oath to those seeking to hold him to account. Mr. Trump, eschewing his instinct to talk and bully his way out of a problem, has chosen silence when the legal stakes are highest.
He declined to appear before a Manhattan grand jury that ultimately indicted him on charges related to a hush-money deal with a porn star. He rejected an interview with a special counsel investigating his campaign’s ties to Russia, submitting written responses instead. And he initially invoked his right against self-incrimination rather than answer Ms. James’s questions about his net worth.
He eventually had a change of heart in the attorney general’s case, answering questions under oath in a deposition this spring. Although he could have continued to invoke his constitutional right not to testify, he had a strong incentive to talk: In a civil case, a jury or judge is allowed to draw negative conclusions from a defendant’s refusal to testify. Doing so would have almost certainly spelled doom for his defense and further exposed him to the harshest of the penalties that Ms. James is asking for, including a $250 million fine.
Still, his testimony at trial is unlikely to do him much good.
Mr. Trump got off on the wrong foot with the judge, Arthur F. Engoron, who will decide the outcome of the trial. Justice Engoron barred the former president from commenting on court staff after Mr. Trump criticized the judge’s law clerk, and already fined him $15,000 for twice violating the order.
At one point, Justice Engoron summoned Mr. Trump to the witness stand to determine whether he had broken the rule. After three minutes, the judge concluded the former president’s statements in his own defense were “hollow and untrue.”
Even before the trial, the judge ruled that the former president had persistently committed fraud. What is left to be determined is any penalty Mr. Trump might have to pay and whether he will be banished from the world of New York real estate that made him famous.
At the heart of Ms. James’s case is the accusation that Mr. Trump, his adult sons and their family business manipulated the former president’s net worth on annual financial statements. Mr. Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, submitted the statements to banks, duping them into issuing favorable loans, Ms. James says.
Last week, Mr. Trump’s elder sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., took the stand, seeking to shift blame for the financial statements onto others, including the company’s external accountants.
When Donald Trump Jr. was shown a message he had sent to the accountants that certified that the statements were accurate, he referred to it dismissively as a “cover-your-butt letter.”
And Eric Trump was defiant when asked whether he had intended to tell lenders the truth about the value of the family’s assets. He certainly had, he said, adding, “I think my father’s net worth is far higher than that number.”
The former president’s testimony is expected to follow the pattern set out in his deposition in April: He is likely to insist that there was a disclaimer on the financial statements — which he refers to as a “worthless” clause — that made it clear that banks should do their own due diligence. He will also probably cling to the principle that real estate valuations are an art, not a science.
“Many lawyers have come to me and said, ‘You have the greatest worthless clause I’ve ever seen,’” Mr. Trump said in the deposition. “‘How can they be using this statement against you?’”
Mr. Trump’s obsession with his wealth is a defining feature of his celebrity. He once posed as one of his own aides to claim a higher net worth to a Forbes magazine reporter helping assemble the publication’s famous annual list of the wealthy, according to the reporter who took the call.
He used the image of an enormously rich titan of industry — despite a relatively small portfolio compared with New York’s largest developers — to sell his book “The Art of the Deal” in 1987. That ghostwritten portrait was the basis for putting Mr. Trump on the reality television show “The Apprentice,” which enhanced his fame and forged a durable national identity that propelled his run for president in 2015.
The questions he’ll face on the stand threaten the heart of that identity.
But this is not the first case to tackle Mr. Trump’s exaggerations of wealth. In 2006, Mr. Trump sued the journalist Timothy L. O’Brien for writing a book that cast doubt on his net worth, and in a deposition, Mr. Trump made damaging admissions, including that his net worth “can vary actually from day to day,” and that he determined it by gauging “my general attitude at the time.”
“Have you ever exaggerated in statements about your properties?” Mr. O’Brien’s lawyer asked him.
“I think everyone does,” Mr. Trump replied.
A judge later dismissed Mr. Trump’s lawsuit.
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