Donald Trump gained more than $100 million (£82 million) by lying about the value of his property empire, the judge in his fraud trial was told on Monday.
Kevin Wallace, a lawyer in state Attorney General Letitia James’ office, said in his opening statement in a downtown Manhattan courtroom that Mr Trump described his finances to banks and insurers in a “materially inaccurate way” for a decade.
Wallace said Mr Trump did this to get better loan terms and lower insurance premiums, illegally generating more than $100 million of financial benefits.
“This isn’t business as usual, and this isn’t how sophisticated parties deal with each other,” Wallace said. “These are not victimless crimes.”
Wallace showed a video deposition of Michael Cohen, Mr Trump’s former attorney, claiming that Mr Trump’s staff had been instructed to inflate the value of individual assets to boost his ranking on the Forbes billionaire list.
“The goal was to use each of the assets and increase its value in order to reach the end result number… the result Mr Trump wanted. Mr Trump wanted to be higher on the Forbes list.”
The trial is scheduled to run through to early December. While more than 150 people could testify, much of the trial may be a battle of experts opining on financial documents.
Mr Trump unexpectedly attended the first day of the New York trial on Monday in person.
He condemned both the “horror show” lawyer bringing the case against him, and the trial’s “Democrat operative” judge.
He derided the “single greatest witch hunt of all time” and claimed the judge has “already made up his mind” on fraud claims that could lose him Trump Tower and other properties.
Crowds of protesters
Mr Trump’s arrival for the first day of the trial saw much of the area surrounding the courthouse closed off to the public on Monday morning, as crowds of protesters, police officers and reporters formed from 4am.
Outside, protesters gathered across the road from the court’s famous columns used by Hollywood in The Godfather, Goodfellas and 12 Angry Men.
Inside court 300, an ornate room adorned with murals depicting the city’s first law courts, established by 17th century Dutch settlers, Mr Trump sat between his lawyers Christopher Kise, the former Florida solicitor general, and Alina Habba.
Dressed in a navy blue suit and tie, he moved slowly through the room when leaving for regular breaks, only once locking eyes with Ms James, and did not speak except to confer occasionally with his lawyers.
Officers from the New York Police Department flanked the doors and Mr Trump’s secret service agents stayed close to him at all times.
Television cameras are not permitted in New York courts, but Mr Engoron, the judge, allowed five cameras to take a photograph of Mr Trump with his lawyers before proceedings began.
Letitia James, the New York attorney general, claims Mr Trump and his allies falsely exaggerated the value of several of his flagship properties, including a Trump Tower penthouse and the Mar-a-Lago resort, in an attempt to secure favourable loans and insurance deals.
Arthur Engoron, the case’s judge, ruled last week that the defendants had engaged in up to $2.2 billion of fraud and will now preside over a trial without a jury to determine whether they took part in a “conspiracy” and what penalties they should face.
Ms James is seeking a $250 million fine and a ban on Mr Trump operating as a businessman in the city – putting his beloved Trump Tower at risk of sale or closure.
Mr Trump and his son Eric appeared in court shortly after 10am to hear the case against them.
Speaking outside the court, the former president and property tycoon said the “sham” case was the “single greatest witch hunt of all time” and accused his legal opponents of “election interference”.
“Just so you know, my financial statements are phenomenal,” he said. “They are less, in terms of the numbers used, than the actual net worth. The actual net worth is substantially more.”
Mr Engoron’s ruling last week has already established that the reported value of the Trump empire was inflated by between $812 million and $2.2 billion over that period.
The properties include Mr Trump’s own penthouse suite in Trump Tower on New York’s Fifth Avenue, which prosecutors claim was reported to be three times larger than it actually is.
The former president’s defence lawyers claim the numbers were later audited by Deutsche Bank, which provided loans, and that the financial reports provided by the Trump Organisation had a clause stating they may not be correct.
They also said Mr Cohen was a “serial liar” who could not be considered a reliable witness by the court.
Mr Kise, opening the defence case, showed a slideshow of points he said would be established by the evidence during the trial.
They included “President Trump has many many billions of dollars being right about real estate investment” and “President Trump has built one of the most successful and highly recognised brands in the world”.
Ms Habba said a ruling against Mr Trump and his family would create a “dangerous precedent” that would see property owners who list their homes online at an inflated price sued by the state.
She also claimed Trump’s assets were “Mona Lisa properties” and that the Mar-a-Lago estate was worth more than $1 billion.
An independent appraiser has said it is worth between $18 million and $28 million.
The former president has used the case in campaign rallies, where he argues that the various criminal and civil actions against him are the result of political interference in the courts and Left-wing prosecutors.
At 12.50am on Monday morning of the trial, Mr Trump posted on his Truth Social page that Mr Engoron should be “sanctioned by the courts for his abuse of power,” describing both he and Ms James as “Democrat operatives”.
Speaking outside the court, Ms James said she had a simple message that “no matter how powerful you are, no matter how much money you may think you may have, no one is above the law”.
“The law is both powerful and fragile and today in court we will prove our case... justice will prevail,” she added.
Asked why he chose to appear in person in New York, Mr Trump said: “Because I want to watch this witch hunt myself.”
The trial continues.