NEW YORK - Former U.S. President Donald Trump appeared Monday at the opening of his New York civil trial accusing him of fraudulently boosting the value of his vast real estate holdings to benefit himself financially.
But before entering the courtroom, Trump assailed the judge hearing the case and the state attorney general bringing the charges against him.
"It's a scam. It's a sham," Trump said of the case.
He characterized Judge Arthur Engoron as a "rogue judge" and New York Attorney General Letitia James, who is Black, as "racist."
Engoron has already ruled that the former president committed fraud at his Trump Organization real estate conglomerate, and James is seeking $250 million in penalties against Trump and a ban on him doing business in the state.
Trump called the case against him, his two adult sons and the company "a disgrace" aimed at stopping him from reclaiming the presidency in the 2024 election. According to national polling, Trump currently holds a commanding lead for the Republican presidential nomination and is engaged in a tight general election contest with Democratic President Joe Biden, who is running for reelection.
"My best asset is my brand," Trump declared. "We have a great company."
James told reporters, 'Donald Trump and the other defendants have committed persistent and repeated fraud. My message is simple: No matter how powerful you are, no matter how much money you think you may have, no one is above the law. Justice will prevail.'
Before the trial even began, Engoron last week resolved a key contention in the case, ruling that Trump routinely deceived banks, insurers and others, grossly exaggerated the value of assets in paperwork he submitted to secure loans with lower interest rates and buy insurance with lower premium costs. James's office estimated that Trump inflated his wealth by as much as $3.6 billion.
Among the allegations were that Trump claimed his Trump Tower apartment in the heart of New York City - a three-story penthouse replete with gold-plated fixtures - was nearly three times its actual size and worth $327 million. James said no apartment in New York City has ever sold for close to that amount.
Trump valued Mar-a-Lago, his oceanside retreat in the southern state of Florida, as high as $739 million - more than 10 times a more reasonable estimate of its worth, James claimed.
Now Engoron, who is hearing and deciding the case himself rather than a jury, will eventually rule on other issues in the case, including allegations of conspiracy, falsifying business records and insurance fraud. The trial could last for weeks into December, Engoron has estimated, with Trump saying he plans to testify in his defense.
As he entered the court, Trump again denied wrongdoing and said the documents containing the asset valuations contained a disclaimer that they should not be trusted, which he contended exonerates him of wrongdoing. Since it is a civil case, he cannot be convicted of a crime or sent to prison if Engoron continues to rule against him.
Trump and his lawyers have also argued that no one was harmed by anything in the financial statements because the banks he borrowed from were fully repaid. However, various of Trump's business operations over the years have failed, including an airline, a university and casinos, all of which bore his name.
The stakes are high for Trump in the case, personally and politically. As a politician, he often has characterized himself as a successful multibillionaire who could run the country like a chief executive officer.
But rulings in the case could tarnish that image, and he could lose control of some of his prized assets. Engoron's fraud ruling last week, if upheld on appeal, would shift control of some of Trump's companies to a court-appointed receiver and could force him to give up high-end New York properties, such as Trump Tower, a Wall Street office building, golf courses and a suburban estate.
Trump called it a "a corporate death penalty."
Trump wrote on his Truth Social platform Sunday night, "I have a Deranged, Trump Hating Judge, who RAILROADED this FAKE CASE through a NYS Court at a speed never before seen." He called Engoron "unfair, unhinged, and vicious in his PURSUIT of me."
Trump's voluntary appearance in court on Monday was unusual. He did not appear in court as either a witness or a spectator when his company and one of its top executives were convicted of tax fraud last year. He didn't show, either, for a trial earlier this year in which a jury found him liable for decades ago sexually assaulting the writer E. Jean Carroll in a New York department store dressing room and ordered him to pay her $5 million.
In addition to the business fraud case, in the coming months Trump is facing another civil defamation case brought by Carroll and four criminal indictments.
In the criminal cases, Trump, 77, faces 91 allegations. He could be sent to prison for years if he is convicted of any of them.
In two of the cases, he is accused of illegally trying to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden. In the other cases, he is accused of illegally hoarding highly classified national security documents at his oceanside Mar-a-Lago estate in the southern state of Florida when he left office in early 2021 and falsifying Trump Organization business records to hide hush money payments to a porn film actress ahead of his successful 2016 run for the presidency.
Three of the cases are set for trial in the first half of 2024 during Trump's political campaign, although pre-trial legal wrangling could delay their start.
Some material in this report came from The Associated Press.