Donald Trump accused of reaping over $US1 billion from fraud, angles for voter support too10/03/2023
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Washington: Donald Trump has taken the provocative step of voluntarily attending the opening of his own fraud trial to face off against the judge and prosecutor overseeing it, accusing them of being part of a political plot to thwart his 2024 election campaign.
The former US president wasn’t required to attend the civil case in New York on Tuesday (AEDT) but sought to steal the spotlight anyway, making the televised journey from his Trump Tower apartment on Fifth Avenue to the downtown court that will ultimately seal the fate of his real estate empire.
It didn’t take long to see why he was there. Trump, after all, is a master of optics whose legal woes are no longer a mere sideshow to his 2024 presidential campaign – they’re the central feature of it.
And this particular case – in which he stands accused of fraudulently inflating the value of his properties for financial gain – goes to his reputation as a billionaire businessman, which is a core part of his political identity.
Indeed, just before his motorcade left Trump Tower at 9.16am, his campaign put out a fundraising email urging people “to spend $US35 [$55] or more to help President Trump win back the White House in 2024” by purchasing a coffee mug with his infamous mugshot on it.
“With President Trump’s trial in New York expected to start today, there has never been a better time to order your ‘NEVER SURRENDER’ Mugshot Mug,” it said.
Former president Donald Trump speaks to reporters during a lunch break at the New York Supreme Court.Credit: AP
By 9.57am, shortly after he arrived at the courthouse with his entourage, Trump stood in front of the assembled media to make searing remarks. He accused Judge Arthur Engoron (a Democrat) of being a “rogue” political operative; insisted Democrat Attorney-General Letitia James (who is black) was “racist” and out to get him; and branded the federal Justice Department (which is not involved in the state-based trial) as “corrupt”.
And by 10.15am, Trump was sitting at the defence table at the front of the court, looking defiant in a dark blue suit and light blue tie, as a pool of photographers snapped away – which was bizarre in itself given the court has not traditionally allowed cameras inside.
To add to the spectacle, Engoron – the jovial, Ivy-league judge overseeing the case – was filmed sitting at his bench with a bemused grin, while James sat a few feet behind Trump, staring intently at the back of his head.
Former president Donald Trump, centre, appears in court in New York on October 2.Credit: AP
It was a dramatic start to a blockbuster trial that accuses Trump, his sons and their family business of fraudulently inflating the value of his properties to get better loan terms and lower insurance premiums, illegally generating more than $US1 billion of financial benefits.
The judge last week already found Trump liable of committing widespread fraud and stripped his control over some of his signature New York properties. Six more arguments in James’ lawsuit remain to be tested at the trial.
James is suing Trump for $US250 million ($392 million) in fines, and also wants a permanent ban on him and his sons running businesses in New York, plus a five-year commercial real estate ban for Trump and the Trump Organisation.
She is also expected to call Trump as a witness, along with his adult children: Eric Trump, Donald Trump jnr, and his favourite daughter Ivanka.
Trump, of course, insists he is innocent, and that the case against him “is a continuation of the greatest witch hunt of all time”.
Trump Tower in Manhattan.Credit: AP
“They’re all corrupt people and frankly, our country is corrupt – and that’s one of the reasons I’m running [for president]. We’re going to straighten it out,” he said.
The fact that he volunteered to appear in court – seeking to seize the narrative and turn the hearing into a campaign war cry – tells you a lot about how he views this case.
Six months ago, when Trump faced another civil trial in Manhattan accusing him of raping and defaming writer E. Jean Carroll, he refused to show up at all.
But this civil trial – separate from the four criminal cases against him – goes to the heart of his reputation and lifts the veil on a core part of his political image.
From his earliest days as a real estate developer in New York, to his stint as a reality TV star on The Apprentice, to his 2016 run for the White House, Trump has always presented himself as a billionaire businessman who has mastered “the art of the deal”.
Now he’s on trial for fraudulently inflating his own wealth, in the first of several court battles to take place as he campaigns to return to power.
The other trials will kick off from early next year: a trial in New York over hush money payments; a criminal trial in Georgia over alleged electoral interference in that state; another one in Florida over classified documents; and a fourth in Washington DC for his attempt to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory.
“The law is both powerful and fragile,” James said before entering the courtroom.
“No matter how much money you think you may have, no one is above the law.”
Come December, when this civil fraud case is due to conclude, we’ll know if she’s right.
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