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Tracking Trump's civil fraud trial

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

DONALD TRUMP: This is a persecution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Felony violations.

TRUMP: We need one more indictment...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Criminal conspiracy.

TRUMP: ...To close out this election.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's time for Trump's Trials, our weekly take on the latest developments in the multiple cases former President Donald Trump is facing, all while he runs for president again. This week, we're focused on Trump's New York civil fraud case. The judge in the case has already ruled the Trump Organization committed fraud for years, inflating the value of its properties. Trump himself took the stand this week in the trial.

We'll get to the details of that testimony in a moment. But first, I want to introduce our panel. Here with us every week, NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: And we're also joined this week by Melissa Murray, a lawyer and professor at NYU School of Law and the co-author of the upcoming book "The Trump Indictments." Thanks for being here.

MELISSA MURRAY: Thanks for having me.

DETROW: So, Domenico, a lot on the line for the Trumps in this trial, right? A quarter-of-a-billion-dollar fine, the ability to do business in New York State, the symbolic value of properties like Trump Tower. And again, this is worth repeating at the beginning of this conversation. The determination here is coming from the judge, not a jury. So this testimony matters for Donald Trump. He takes the stand. What did we learn?

MONTANARO: Well, what was surprising to me is just how much he contradicted his sons. His sons really sort of took this hands-off approach and said, I wasn't really involved in these valuations. I don't remember these emails. You know, yeah, I was on them, but I had other things to do. I don't really know what you're talking about with all of this stuff. Donald Trump Sr. was very much the opposite. He was like, I think this property was undervalued and that property was undervalued, showing he really had his hands very closely tied to these valuations, which is at the core of the fraud case here.

DETROW: Right. And, Melissa, this is the center of the case. And again, the judge has already ruled that these financial documents were fraudulent, that they inflated the value of the organization way more than its actual value. And he comes in and says, no, they were worth more than that. I mean, what did you make of that legally?

MURRAY: Well, it does seem like Donald Trump is playing to two different audiences. As Domenico said, the main audience here or the proper audience here is the judge, who will make the decision about what the penalties will be in this phase and will determine what punishment Donald Trump will have for the fraud that's already been determined. But Donald Trump is also playing for an audience outside of this courtroom. And there were moments in his testimony where it seemed like maybe he wasn't that concerned about winning this New York fraud case because he had bigger fish to fry elsewhere. And that could be the criminal cases and the criminal liability he is facing in four other lawsuits. Or it could just be his presidential campaign.

DETROW: What's a specific moment that made you think maybe he doesn't actually care about the outcome of this trial?

MURRAY: Again, like the bombast, like, you know, the square footage of the apartment is a verifiable fact. I mean, maybe there is a little bit of tinkering that one could do on the edges. Like, do you include this closet? Do you not include this closet? But escalating the square footage of your apartment from 10,000 to 30,000 seems like a bit out of range, and he did not bother to rein in any of that. He was like, yeah, it's a huge apartment.

MONTANARO: It's kind of what you do with money laundering, but it's not - this is obviously not a case about that. But it's literally what you would do is just inflate how much, at least what I learned from "Ozark."

DETROW: But, Domenico, he was doing it in real time with the apartment. He was saying it was 10,000. No, actually, it's more 11,000. No, it's 12,000. No, it's 13. Like, in real time, he's just like growing the number on the stand.

MONTANARO: Yeah, well, that's what he did with his net worth when he ran for president the first time. I mean, 2 billion. Why not five? Why not 10, right? I mean, how do you value a brand like Trump's, right? And this was all about that branding. The fact, though, is his team has always had these tactics in, you know, law cases to delay, No. 1. He tried to delay this case, tried to get it thrown out, didn't work. So this time, maybe Melissa is right. He doesn't care if he wins or loses this thing because he knows the real audience is politics, and he's got to keep his base in line.

DETROW: There was one specific defense that Trump kept coming back to, you know, at one point, pulling out this piece of paper, waving it around. He said this gave the financial statements legal cover for possible inflated value. This was the idea of a disclaimer in the document. Can you explain to us why this matters and what the judge's response was?

MURRAY: This disclaimer is the sort of, you know, at the end of these statements, like, yeah, you know, maybe this is not entirely accurate. Like, you know, your mileage may vary is sort of the TL;DR of this. Here are the numbers. But there's room for disagreement. These are subjective. And that's going to be, I think, the crux of the defense. Valuation, especially in real estate, is necessarily subjective. It is particularly subjective, I think they will argue, in the context of this family, where so much of their alleged worth is tied up in the family brand and is not necessarily subject to the kinds of traditional valuations that you might see for real estate enterprises that don't necessarily have an outlet on television or reality TV, for example.

So I think that's a big part of what's going on here. And I think separately, another thing that we're going to see - and, you know, the disclaimer is related to that - is nobody was hurt here. The banks made money. Donald Trump made money. No one was deprived of anything in the manner of a traditional fraud situation.

DETROW: What's the state's argument? Who was hurt here?

MURRAY: Well, the state seems to be making a very populist argument, which is we're all hurt when Donald Trump cheats like this. Like, we're ordinary stiffs who go to get a mortgage, and we don't inflate the value of our net worth. We don't inflate the valuations of our existing assets. We have to play by the rules. And here's this guy who never plays by the rules.

MONTANARO: Well, politically, Trump would say, that makes me smart, right? I mean, that's how he talked about his taxes in one of the debates in 2016. And I think that in this case, he would say the same thing. But when it's revealed in court, it stands a little bit differently, especially when the state is really threatening your entire business.

DETROW: One other thing to ask about in that New York courtroom this week, Melissa. That's the fact that Ivanka Trump testified. She was the last witness called by the attorney general's office. She has been a high-profile figure in Trump's orbit. What do we need to know about her testimony?

MURRAY: Well, I think if you were expecting the kind of bombast and outbursts that you saw with Donald Trump and the recalcitrance that you saw in the two Trump brothers, you didn't get that with Ivanka Trump. She was much more controlled. I believe the attorney general referred to her as cordial. And I think that's exactly right. She seemed to be a very willing witness, although not one that could recall the particularities of some of the business deals with which she apparently was very closely associated with.

DETROW: That is senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

DETROW: And Melissa Murray, a lawyer and professor at NYU School of Law. Thanks, Melissa.

MURRAY: Thank you.

DETROW: And you can hear more of that conversation on our Trump's Trials podcast. Find it wherever you get your podcasts. 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.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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