The Trump Trial: the story so far
Sose Ebodaghe – 27 November 2023
“Donald Trump lied about his net worth on his statements of financial condition to get loans for much better terms than he should have. It’s that simple.” To New York’s Attorney General, Letitia James, it really is that simple, and it has resulted in a civil fraud case against the former president. The catalyst for this was Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen’s 2019 testimony to Congress, which included the claim that Trump and his staff had altered his net worth for financial gain. In her investigation, AG James found that the Trumps had indeed been falsifying their financial records for decades, broadly overvaluing Trump’s wealth and assets in annual net-worth statements given to banks and insurers, with the aim of obtaining loans on the best terms possible. Judge Arthur Engoron, who is presiding over this case, has already ruled that the Trump Organization did indeed commit fraud, so the purpose of the ongoing trial is to decide what retribution the defendants will receive.
We all know what fraud is in a general sense, but what constitutes civil fraud in the eyes of US law? There are five main elements necessary to prove fraud in New York: material misrepresentation, which is a false statement or the concealment of a material fact; the party’s knowledge of the falsity of the statement; the party’s intent to deceive another; the other party’s justifiable reliance on the falsehood; and the other party’s harm suffered as a result. For businesses like the Trump Organization, common remedies for fraud include recission, in which parties are released from any contractual obligations made under false pretenses, or monetary or punitive damages. In this case, the Trumps may be facing both monetary and punitive damages, as the Attorney General is calling for the company to pay $250m in alleged ill-gotten gains and moving to terminate the Trumps’ business licenses, which would cease their right to do business in New York.
Here in the UK, fraud solicitors (as you might expect) need a head for business, as they deal with a considerable volume of paperwork and analysis. For trainees, the early years will probably only provide minimal court exposure and will instead involve masses of trawling through warehouses full of documents, often on cases that can run for years.
So far, the Trumps’ defense has called numerous witnesses to the stand, most notably the former president’s two oldest sons, Trump Jr. and Eric, and former Trump Organization controller Jeffery McConney. Trump Jr’s testimony began with an elaborate and reverential slideshow detailing his father’s real estate achievements (no, we’re not kidding), and he claimed that he and his brother relied on accountants to ensure the accuracy of their financial records. Eric, supportive of his older brother’s testimony, stated that he “never had anything to do with the statements of financial condition”, despite numerous documents and emails in which he is asked explicitly about them.
Unsurprisingly, there has been no shortage of drama surrounding the trial. Most recently, Jeff McConney was moved to tears when asked by the defense why he left the Trump Organization after almost 40 years. He said that he “gave up” on his job due to the company’s insurmountable legal roadblocks, but never intended to mislead anyone or be inaccurate. Outside of the courtroom, Donald Trump has launched several public attacks on Judge Engoron and his staff (despite being issued a gag order!), which has resulted in a barrage of “serious and credible” racist, sexist, and/or antisemitic threats and messages towards them. All of this, and the Trumps’ fraud trial is only just kicking off, so keep an eye on how this continues to play out over the next few weeks.
If you’re interested, you can read more about life as a criminal lawyer working on fraud cases here.