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Donald Trump is set to take the witness stand on Monday, submitting himself to a grilling over his finances and business empire in what promises to be an extraordinary legal and political spectacle.
The former US president will testify in a civil case in Manhattan state court brought by the New York attorney-general Letitia James. Judge Arthur Engoron has already concluded that Trump committed fraud by persistently inflating his net worth to secure bank loans and insurance policies for the Trump Organization on advantageous terms.
At stake in his testimony is whether Trump will be forced to pay crippling penalties upwards of $250mn and be stripped — along with his adult sons, Donald, Jr and Eric — of the ability to operate a business in New York.
The image of a former president, sworn under oath and seated in the witness stand, will serve as a vivid reminder of the legal problems besetting Trump even as he plots a course back to the White House.
The leading contender for the Republican nomination is facing three criminal trials in the coming months stemming from his alleged attempt to overturn the 2020 election and his handling of classified documents after he left office. He has been charged in a fourth criminal case, brought by Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg, with masterminding hush money payments to a porn actress with whom he allegedly had an affair.
Trump has denied wrongdoing in all matters, and dismissed the cases as partisan witch-hunts meant to end his political career.
The former president was a scowling presence in the early days of the New York civil fraud trial, using a phalanx of cameras outside the courtroom to broadcast to his supporters during breaks in the action and attack the state’s attorney-general and Judge Engoron.
He sat briefly in the witness chair when the judge halted the proceedings a few weeks ago to question Trump about disparaging comments he had made about a law clerk in violation of a partial gag order. The judge deemed the former president’s testimony “not credible” in that instance. In total Trump has been fined $15,000 for violations of the order.
Trump was preceded on the stand by his two eldest sons, Donald Jr and Eric, who spent their entire careers at the family business and then took charge of it when their father became president in 2017.
In their testimony last week, the brothers portrayed themselves as executives with little interest in accounting who were happy to delegate to others. In particular, both sought to distance themselves from the “statement of financial condition” that outlined Trump’s wealth and which is central to the attorney-general’s case.
Donald Jr told the court that he relied on the judgment of outside accountants and financial executives when signing documents. Meanwhile, Eric — who at times became flustered — said it had not “registered” with him that property valuations he supplied to the Trump Organization’s controller were for the purpose of the statement — even though emails addressed to him explicitly stated this.
Some defence attorneys have questioned the wisdom of Trump taking the stand since his testimony may be used against him in the pending criminal cases.
“There’s no way he should be testifying,” said Daniel Horwitz, a former prosecutor who now chairs the white collar practice at McLaughlin & Stern. “You’ve already lost the battle and the war in New York and the risk of testifying is enormous.”
Michael Bachner, a New York defence attorney, agreed, saying: “Prosecutors will be sitting in the courtroom waiting for Trump to state something under-oath that can be used in the criminal prosecution.”
But Trump may have other considerations. By testifying, he is sure to dominate the airwaves, leaving little space for his Republican rivals. He may also be able to drive home the message to voters and potential jurors that he is unbowed and has nothing to hide.