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Former President Donald Trump's business fraud trial gets underway in New York

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump will appear in a New York courtroom today as his legal troubles enter the next phase.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Trump faces a civil trial brought on by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is demanding that the former president and his company pay the state $250 million. Now, already, New York Judge Arthur Engoron has found that Donald Trump and his two sons committed persistent fraud and ordered them to start taking steps to sell off large pieces of their company.

FADEL: NPR's Andrea Bernstein is at the courthouse in Lower Manhattan, and she joins us now. Hi, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: Good morning. So explain what's at issue here - what the judge already found.

BERNSTEIN: So last Tuesday, surprising, so far as I can tell, almost everyone, Judge Engoron issued a ruling that when you read it, you can practically see the steam rising. He said based on paperwork alone, all of the defendants committed persistent and repeated fraud by lying about their property values. For example, Donald Trump lied about the size of his own triplex apartment at Trump Tower. He said it was three times as big as it actually is, worth several hundred million dollars more.

FADEL: Wow.

BERNSTEIN: And with Mar-a-Lago, the judge said Trump lied by 2,300% about the value. At one point, the judge likened Donald Trump to Chico Marx in the 1930 classic movie "Duck Soup," who said, well, who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

FADEL: Two thousand three hundred percent - quite a lot. The judge has moved to cancel the Trump company's business certificates. What does that mean?

BERNSTEIN: So in New York, the law is clear. If you commit persistent and repeated fraud, you can't do business. So now there's a process which begins with the cancellation of the business certificates. The idea is that Trump would have to sell some of his most iconic pieces of his business - Trump Tower, golf courses, commercial buildings. The process will move in parallel with the trial. Trump has appealed, but so far, New York courts are allowing both the trial and the cancellation of the business certificates to move forward.

FADEL: I guess what I'm confused about is if all of this is already happening, why is there even a trial?

BERNSTEIN: So the judge's ruling was only for the first cause of action. There are six more. They have to do with drawing up false documents, conspiracy and lying to insurance companies. On top of that, the AG has to present evidence supporting her claim that Trump's company made $250 million in extra profits from these fraudulent representations. Now, Trump's team has argued no one was hurt, that he made money; banks made money - all good. But the judge said that's irrelevant. You're not allowed to lie or commit fraud. The judge called Trump's defense, quote, "legally preposterous."

FADEL: And so what do we expect today?

BERNSTEIN: So there will be opening statements by assistant attorney general, Trump's lawyer and possibly lawyers for Don Jr. and Eric Trump, who are also defendants here. The first witness is Trump's former outside accountant Donald Bender from the firm Mazars. Bender knows a lot, so that should be interesting. Allen Weisselberg and Michael Cohen, two former executives, are expected this week. And then later in the trial, Donald Trump, Eric, Don Jr. and Ivanka Trump are all on the witness list. We're not sure how long it'll go, but one guess is that it will conclude before thanksgiving.

FADEL: And Trump's there today. Will he be back tomorrow?

BERNSTEIN: As with everything involving a former and would-be president going on trial, it's uncharted. We'll know when we know.

FADEL: Andrea Bernstein. Thanks so much.

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.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Andrea Bernstein