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Trump testifies at civil trial

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Things got heated in a New York courtroom today, as former President Donald Trump testified in the $250 million civil fraud trial brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James. Trump repeatedly defended the property valuations a judge has already determined were fraudulent. NPR's Andrea Bernstein was in the courtroom and joins us now. Hey there.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

SUMMERS: Andrea, I mean, we have a once and possibly future president testifying in a court of law. So, I mean, I have to start by asking you, what was that like?

BERNSTEIN: So about as strange as you might think. It's a big courtroom, but a small room for the former president, and it's the one kind of room he doesn't get to control, though he tried mightily. We have all heard him speak a lot, but not under oath, publicly, in real time. And when he did, Trump kept being admonished for not answering questions. Instead, he said things to Kevin Wallace, the assistant attorney general who was questioning him, like, quote, "You sued me on the basis Trump had no money and he wrote phony statements, even though they were represented by the best lawyers. There was no victim." He meant to claim no one was harmed, which doesn't matter under New York law. Pretty early on in the day, the judge said to Trump's lawyers, can you control your client? This is not a political rally. This is a courtroom with a trial over New York business law 63(12).

SUMMERS: OK. To that end, what did we learn today?

BERNSTEIN: The main substance of the day were the statements of financial condition and Trump's role in putting them together. Trump repeatedly said, yeah, he saw them, but he barely remembered them. They were so old. But he did remember very clearly one part, the disclaimer, which he calls a worthless clause, meaning lenders should check his work. Trump had mentioned this clause over a dozen times. At one point, he pulled out a folded piece of paper from his pocket with, presumably, the disclaimer on it, and asked, Your Honor, can I read it? When the judge said no, Trump said, no shock.

SUMMERS: OK. And what was Trump's role in setting the values of those properties we're talking about?

BERNSTEIN: He kept saying it was minimal. He left it up to his staff and his accountants. But he also said, I am probably an expert more than anyone else on values. And his judgment was always that his beautiful properties could command top dollar and therefore were worth more than he claimed. Take Mar-a-Lago. Trump bought it about 20 years ago for $18 million. By about a decade ago, documents placed the value at over 400 million. A golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland, jumped over $200 million in value one year, even though Trump had not made promised improvements. He hasn't to this day. Forty Wall Street lost money year over year. But at one point, Trump told a Wall Street Journal reporter there was an appraisal for $600 million for that building when there was no such appraisal, etc.

SUMMERS: You mentioned earlier that the judge was trying to keep control of the courtroom, asserting that this was a trial and not a political rally, which leads me to believe that the former president did not exactly stick to the topic at hand. Correct?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. So at issue was whether there was a conspiracy in how much of the $250 million the AG is asking for. At one point, the assistant AG asked - said, you do not agree with the office of attorney general your statements of financial condition are inaccurate? Trump's answer - how do you value against somebody and call him a fraud when it's president of the United States? He did a great job referring to the AG, who was sitting in the front row. He said, quote, "The fraud is her."

SUMMERS: In a sentence or two, what comes next?

BERNSTEIN: Ivanka Trump testifies on Wednesday. The AG will rest its case. The defense case will go to December 15 if they don't succeed in getting their motion for a mistrial.

SUMMERS: NPR's Andrea Bernstein, thanks.

BERNSTEIN: 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.

Andrea Bernstein