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Trump's $250 million civil fraud trial is underway in New York

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

It was quite the scene inside the New York County Supreme Court yesterday where Donald Trump appeared for a civil trial. The state's accusing him, his eldest sons and his business of inflating its assets and wealth by billions of dollars. And outside that courtroom, Trump, of course, denied the charges.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: The actual net worth is substantially more. No bank was affected. No bank was hurt. They don't even know why they have to be involved.

FADEL: Letitia James, the New York attorney general, also spoke to reporters before the trial got underway.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LETITIA JAMES: No matter how powerful you are, no matter how much money you think you may have, no one is above the law.

FADEL: NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo was there and joins me now. Good morning.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So Trump had a lot to say outside that courtroom. What were you hearing?

BUSTILLO: Well, he was quiet inside the courtroom, but he came out and spoke to reporters a couple of times, at least twice. He was strongly denying any wrongdoing. And he continued to call the allegations politically motivated. This is something that we have heard from him before. And a lot of it was familiar, you know, personal attacks onto the judge and the attorney general. He called the attorney general racist, which is an accusation he's launched before. And he argued that both of them are corrupt, according to him.

But one argument that he did also make was that his financial statements had what he called a buyer beware clause. And so that also put a lot of responsibilities on buyers to be able to read those contracts and know what they're signing on to. The judge in the courtroom was not fully buying this argument, though, when it was presented in the opening statements by the Trump legal team. The judge said, you know, look - like, you can't just look at property 10 years later and say, now that's what it's worth.

The point of statement of financial conditions, which are some of these documents that are at the center of this trial, is, you know, being able to see what things were worth back then. But an attorney for former President Donald Trump went as far as to say that Mar-a-Lago, you know, one of Trump's resorts in Florida, could sell for $1 billion. That's compared to the 18 million from one tax estimate. They said that that's not fraud. It's good business.

FADEL: Just good business, huh? So Trump didn't testify. Who did take the stand?

BUSTILLO: Well, first up was Donald Bender. He's an accountant for Mazars USA, the company that handled Trump's taxes for years. Bender mostly spoke about some of the operations for the Trump Organization. Particularly, he detailed how he took the financial information he was given by the Trump executive team. Now, Trump did not testify yesterday, but he is on both of the attorney general's lists and the defense attorney's lists of witnesses, though being on the list doesn't necessarily mean that you'll be called up. Also on the list are Trump's children, Eric Trump, who was also present yesterday, and Donald Trump Jr. Both of them are defendants. Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, is not a defendant but is on one of the lists.

FADEL: OK, so Monday was the first day. What are you watching for in the coming days?

BUSTILLO: There are other witnesses to watch beyond the Trumps. Our next big witness is likely to be Allen Weisselberg. He's a defendant in the case and fairly high up on the list of witnesses, so we expect to see him earlier in the trial process. Weisselberg is a former chief financial officer at the Trump Organization. Earlier this year, he was sentenced to five months in prison for financial crimes he committed while working there. That was after, last year, he pleaded guilty to 15 counts, including grand larceny, tax fraud and falsifying business records. Another recognizable name is Michael Cohen, who's a former Trump lawyer. He might also appear as a witness in the coming days.

FADEL: NPR politics reporter Ximena Bustillo. Thank you so much for your time.

BUSTILLO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.