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Washington: When Donald Trump took the historic step of appearing on the witness stand in a Manhattan courtroom to testify in his own civil fraud trial, the juxtaposition was undeniable.
Here was a former president and the Republican frontrunner for next year’s election, accused of massively inflating his net worth for financial gain in a case that strikes at the heart of his political identity.
In this courtroom sketch, former US president Donald Trump answers questions from New York assistant attorney general Kevin Wallace in New York Supreme Court.Credit: AP
This was not the first time Trump appeared in court, but for the 77-year-old, who has spent decades building an eponymous real estate empire, it was certainly the most personal.
After all, Trump has cultivated an image as a rich tycoon, a master of the “art of the deal”, owner of a string of high-end properties such as his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, Trump Tower in Manhattan, or Seven Springs Estate in northern New York.
But in court, he was a combative witness at risk of jeopardising two of the things he values most: money and power.
Boiled down, Trump’s ability to continue to do business in the state of New York is on the line and so, too, is his reputation.
State Attorney-General Letitia 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.
It’s important to note that the judge overseeing this case, Arthur Engoron, has already found Trump liable of fraud in a pre-trial ruling and has temporarily stripped his control over some of his signature New York properties.
As such, the rest of the trial will determine whether other specific illegal acts were committed in the process and what penalties should apply.
Needless to say, Trump is furious at what he sees as yet another witch-hunt given Engoron and James are both Democrats.
In often heated testimony lasting almost four hours, Trump branded James a “political hack”; suggested the case ought to be dismissed; and insisted that his net worth was more than what appeared on financial statements.
He also sparred repeatedly with Engoron, who spent the first part of the hearing admonishing him for giving meandering answers to specific questions that required a simple “yes or no”.
After repeatedly urging Trump not to give speeches and answer questions directly, the judge grew increasingly frustrated at Trump’s belligerence and lack of brevity, telling his lawyers to rein him in.
“I beseech you to control him if you can,” the typically mild-mannered Engeron said at one point, noting this was not a campaign rally.
Justice Arthur Engoron.Credit: AP
“If you can’t, I will. I will excuse him and I will draw every negative inference that I can. Do you understand that?”
The tensions set the scene for a wave of trials that Trump faces as he campaigns for another shot at the White House.
They include 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 prosecutors in those cases would have watched his testimony with interest, arguably buoyed by Trump’s lack of discipline on the witness stand.
Former US president Donald Trump waits to take the witness stand at the New York Supreme Court.Credit: Bloomberg
Politically, however, it’s unlikely that Trump’s legal woes will derail his chances of winning the Republican nomination to run against President Joe Biden next year, given the commanding lead he has over his GOP opponents.
Indeed, as recent history has shown, every time Trump has been charged with wrongdoing, his poll numbers have risen as he portrays himself as a martyr fighting against those trying to stop him returning to power.
And in an ominous sign for Biden, the latest New York Times/Siena College poll even has Trump ahead of the president in five battleground states that could end up deciding who wins the November 2024 election: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.
Much can obviously change in a year, and in a glimmer of hope for increasingly worried Democrats, some voters from the same poll say they would be ready to turn on the Republican candidate – if he is convicted and sentenced in any of his cases.
Whether this happens is anyone’s guess. For now, however, expect to see more of the same bravado and bluster from the incendiary Trump, whose legal challenges are no longer a mere sideshow to his 2024 presidential campaign. They’re the central focus of it.
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