As Fraud Trial Gets Underway, Trump Tries to Provoke Judge to Jail Him
"We get an update on Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial with Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter David Cay Johnston. New York Attorney General Letitia James is seeking to fine Trump $250 million and is asking for a permanent ban on Trump family members running a business in New York. The outcome of the trial could put the future of the Trump Organization in jeopardy. Trump himself has already been barred from posting or speaking publicly about the trial after his public comments about James, which she described as “race-baiting,” and about Judge Arthur Engoron. Johnston, the author of three books on Trump, including The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family, says that though this trial doesn’t carry with it the potential for incarceration that his criminal trials do, it is just as threatening to the Trump empire because “Donald Trump is his money.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial here in New York.
Trump’s attorneys are expected to file a motion today to stay the trial, pending an appeal of a judge’s ruling last week that Trump and his two eldest sons, Eric and Donald Jr., had committed fraud by vastly overstating the assets of their company. The pretrial ruling puts the future of the Trump Organization’s real estate empire in jeopardy.
Trump voluntarily attended the first three days of the trial. During comments to the press, he repeatedly attacked New York’s Attorney General Letitia James for bringing the fraud case against him. On Monday, Trump assailed James, who is African American, as a “racist” and called the trial judge, Arthur Engoron, a “disgrace.” On Wednesday, James denounced Trump’s comments.
ATTORNEY GENERAL LETITIA JAMES: What they were were comments that, unfortunately, fomented violence, were comments that I would describe as race-baiting, were comments, unfortunately, that appeals to the bottom of our humanity. … I will not be bullied. And so, Mr. Trump is no longer here; the Donald Trump show is over. This was nothing more than a political stunt, a fundraising stop.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, Judge Engoron placed a gag order on Donald Trump, the first on a former president, after he falsely claimed on social media that the judge’s law clerk was the girlfriend of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. The judge barred Trump from posting, sending emails or making public remarks about members of the judge’s staff.
To talk more about the opening week of the trial, we’re joined by David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who’s reported on Trump for decades. He’s the author of three books on Trump, including The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family. Johnston is also a distinguished visiting lecturer at Syracuse University College of Law.
David, it’s great to have you back with us. If you can start off by talking about the significance of this trial for Donald Trump? I mean, this is a civil trial. He didn’t have to show up, though he falsely alleged he was being forced off the campaign trail to show up for this trial.
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, unlike the four separate criminal indictments, where Donald is at risk of incarceration, going to jail, this is a civil trial. But Donald Trump is his money. That’s the most important thing to understand about Donald. And, of course, his money is always being inflated, along with other things. You know, he claims buildings are bigger than they are. He claims more money. And in this case, the judge has already ruled that Donald committed repeated calculated frauds. The issue in this trial, the principal issue in this trial — there are some minor facts — is how much must he disgorge because his frauds resulted in ill-got gains that he must give up.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about why this is so important. I mean, another civil trial — right? — the sexual assault trial of E. Jean Carroll, he did not show up for.
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, that’s right. And E. Jean Carroll similarly got a judge to rule there was such overwhelming evidence, there was no need to try the merits of the case. Donald Trump is a rapist. That’s been established by another judge. He already owes $5 million to the writer E. Jean Carroll, and now there’s a second defamation case that she’s brought, and there will be a trial only to determine, again, how much money he owes.
In this trial before Judge Engoron, Donald has had all of his business licenses revoked. The Trump Organization, his eyes-wide-open blind trust he created when he became president, and the at least 500 Trump legal entities, mostly limited liability companies, no longer have business licenses. And you cannot do business without a business license. The judge has appointed another judge, a retired judge, as a monitor to make sure that Trump, his sons and the two executives who are in the case don’t abscond with any of the money until it’s determine how much is there. Ultimately, we will see the Trump Organization, his umbrella group, turned over to a receiver. This is similar to bankruptcy when you dissolve a company, but it’s under New York state business law, it’s not a bankruptcy case. His properties will be sold. Creditors and the government will get paid first. And if there’s any money left at the end of the day, Amy, it will go to Donald Trump.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re talking about properties. That’s Donald Trump’s residence in the Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. That’s one of the buildings. Is that right, David Cay Johnston? One of the ones that also he, to say the least, inflated, from 10,000 feet to 30,000 feet. And why that matters?
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Square feet.
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, he claimed the building was three times the size it was, so he could justify an enormously higher value than it’s worth. And Donald does this all the time. Trump Tower is 58 stories; he’ll tell you it’s 68 stories He owns a mansion on a large wooded area in Westchester County, about a short drive from Manhattan. He’s claimed it’s worth as much as $291 million. The most generous appraisal was $30 million, roughly a tenth of that, and it was based on the idea that he could carve it up into smaller estates and sell them off. And the local authorities have said, “No, we are not going to allow you to carve it up.” So the property is more likely worth something in the order of, say, $10 million, and Donald’s claims are 29 times that much, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Samuel Bankman-Fried is on trial right nearby, here in New York. He was jailed before the trial for violating a gag order. President Trump has just had a gag order imposed, because, among other things, of what he just tweeted out in the midst of the trial, that the clerk, who was sitting just feet from him, right next to the judge, was having an affair with Chuck Schumer. Can you talk about the significance of what it would mean if the judge found him guilty of violating that gag order? Could he end up in the same position as Samuel Bankman-Fried?
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: He absolutely could end up remanded to jail. Donald is, I believe, for political reasons, trying to provoke one of the judges in his criminal or this civil case to send him to jail, so that he can rally his supporters and say, “See, the system is rigged. They’re out to get me. I didn’t do anything wrong, but they’re going to shut me up.” He threatened General Milley, who just retired as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That’s not going to result in being remanded to custody, because General Milley, who was a valorous infantryman in combat, is not being intimidated by Donald Trump. But the —
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, he essentially said that Milley should be executed.
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Absolutely, he said he should be executed. The judge’s secretary, however, or clerk — I’m sorry, the judge’s clerk — has nothing to do with the merits of the proceedings. And the judge made it clear that you write or say anything about any person on my staff, and there will be consequences. And I think he’s made it pretty clear that Trump might get one more chance. But if he does it twice, I assure you, then he’s going to be remanded by this judge.
AMY GOODMAN: And for people to understand how a decision has been made in parts of this trial — I mean, it is a bench trial; it doesn’t go to a jury — oh, and also President Trump lied when he said he had wanted a jury trial, because his lawyers never asked for one.
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Right. Well, Donald, I’m confident, based on his public remarks, would be very concerned that a New York City jury, a Manhattan jury, could be very bad for him. They might rule very heavily against him. So his lawyers accepted a bench trial. Whether they did it by incompetence or intentionally, they agreed to this. So there’s no question about that. He’s been denied nothing by the judge. And the facts in this case are so overwhelming, that Letitia James put before the court, showing that again and again and again, every time the Trumps valued a property, they overvalued. If there had been a mixed bag — you know, now and then they overvalued things, most of the time they were reasonable — that would be different. And, you know, Amy, imagine you own a $300,000 house. Well, maybe it’s worth $270,000, maybe it’s worth $330,000. But if you go to a bank and say, “Loan me money. This house is worth $3 million, or $30 million,” that’s just fraud. So, all this trial is about — well, primarily what this trial is about is how much in damages does Donald Trump own for his and his sons’ years of fraud.
AMY GOODMAN: So, David Cay Johnston, you have written several books on Donald Trump. Is this case more important to them — he also fell off the, what, Forbes billionaire list — than any of the other ones?
DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: Well, it’s more important to Donald’s mind, because he grew up in a household with a father who was just a complete monster, who taught him and his other children that all that matters is getting the money. As long as you don’t get arrested, do whatever you need to do. There are no rules. You’re special. The rules of law, the rules of decency, they don’t apply to you. And so, to Donald, in his psyche, this is much more important. But the fact is that in the other cases, particularly the effort to overthrow the United States government on January 6th, he faces prison if convicted. But those are down the road a little bit. Right now he’s very concentrated on this. And as I said in the beginning, to Donald, Donald is his money.
AMY GOODMAN: David Cay Johnston, we thank you so much for being with us, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, co-founder of DCReport, author of three books on Trump, including The Big Cheat: How Donald Trump Fleeced America and Enriched Himself and His Family.
Next up, we speak to the attorney suing Columbia University and its affiliated hospitals on behalf of more than 300 more patients who say they were sexually assaulted by the former Columbia University gynecologist Robert Hadden over a span of decades. They say Columbia shielded the sexual predator. Stay with us."