NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump will be back in court Tuesday for his New York civil fraud trial, but a face-to-face showdown with former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen will have to wait.
Cohen, a key witness in the state’s case against the former president, postponed his testimony, saying he needed to attend to a health problem.
“I’m not bowing out. I’m not nervous to testify. I’m not being paid off. I have a medical issue that I need to attend to. It’s as simple as that,” Cohen said last week on X, formerly known as Twitter. Judge Arthur Engoron said Monday that the earliest Cohen can now testify is Oct. 23.
Cohen’s absence is scrambling the trial schedule in its third week, forcing the New York attorney general’s office to call other witnesses earlier than planned. It’s also robbing the proceedings — which have been heavy on spreadsheets and accounting talk — of the drama of a Cohen-Trump confrontation, at least for now.
Trump, who is campaigning for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, attended the trial’s first three days, Oct. 2-4. The trial is expected to last into December, but a lot has happened so far.
THE LAWSUIT: WHAT IS THE TRIAL ABOUT?
The trial stems from a lawsuit New York Attorney General Letitia James filed in 2022 alleging that Trump and top executives at his family company, the Trump Organization, conspired to pad his net worth by billions of dollars on financial statements provided to banks, insurers and others to make deals and secure loans.
Among the allegations: Trump claimed his Trump Tower penthouse was nearly three times its actual size and worth $327 million, more than any other apartment had ever sold for. He also valued his Mar-a-Lago estate as high as $739 million based on the idea that the property could be developed for residential use, which is prohibited by deed terms.
In a pretrial court filing, James’ office estimated that Trump exaggerated his wealth by as much as $3.6 billion.
THE DEFENDANTS: WHO IS ON TRIAL?
James is suing Trump, his company, top executives — including his sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr. — and the corporate entities through which Trump owns such properties as the Doral golf resort near Miami, Florida, a hotel and condo skyscraper in Chicago, a Wall Street office building and a 212-acre estate north of New York City.
Longtime Trump Organization executives Allen Weisselberg and Jeffrey McConney are also defendants. Weisselberg, the company’s former chief financial officer, and McConney, the former controller, were both involved in preparing the annual financial statements at issue in the case.
Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, was initially named as a defendant, but an appeals court dropped her in June after finding that claims against her were outside the statute of limitations.
THE EX-PRESIDENT: WHAT DOES TRUMP SAY?
Trump denies wrongdoing. He has argued that a disclaimer on his financial statements absolves him of any culpability and that some of his assets are worth far more than what’s listed on the documents.
In comments to TV cameras outside the courtroom on the trial’s first day, Trump called the case a “sham,” a “scam,” and “a continuation of the single greatest witch hunt of all time.”
“What we have here is an attempt to hurt me in an election,” he said, adding, “I don’t think the people of this country are going to stand for it.”
During his earlier trip to court, Trump rankled the judge by maligning his law clerk in a social media post. Engoron imposed a limited gag order, warning participants in the case not to smear members of his staff. He also ordered Trump to delete the post.
THE LAW: HOW DID THIS CASE COME ABOUT?
James, a Democrat, is suing Trump under a New York statute known as Executive Law 63(12). The law, passed in 1956, gives the state’s attorney general broad power to investigate allegations of persistent fraud and illegality in business dealings.
Potential penalties include revoking a company’s business licenses and forcing it to pay back ill-gotten gains.
James started her investigation after Cohen, who went to prison for tax evasion and orchestrating secret payments to cover up stories of extramarital affairs that Trump denied, told Congress his former boss had a history of misrepresenting the value of assets.
In the past, the law has been used against predatory lenders, neglectful nursing home operators and others.
THE WITNESSES: WHO HAS TESTIFIED?
State lawyers have called eight witnesses so far, including Trump Organization insiders Weisselberg, McConney, Assistant Vice President Patrick Birney and hotel division chief Mark Hawthorn.
They’ve also called accountants Donald Bender and Camron Harris, whose firms Trump hired to prepare his financial statements. Trump’s lawyers have attempted to blame those firms for any problems. A retired Deutsche Bank official testified the financial statements were key to Trump securing hundreds of millions of dollars in loans.
Weisselberg acknowledged that information in Trump’s financial statements wasn’t always accurate, such as valuing his penthouse based on the wrong size. He also struggled to answer many questions, saying “I don’t remember” or “I don’t recall” more than 100 times.
McConney detailed various methods Trump executives used to increase Trump’s property values, including one instance in which he added $20 million to the penthouse’s value partly because of Trump’s celebrity.
Trump is expected to testify in a few weeks.
THE JUDGE: WHO WILL DECIDE THE TRIAL?
Trump’s civil trial doesn’t have a jury. Instead, Engoron is presiding over what’s known as a bench trial. He will issue a ruling once the trial is over.
Engoron, 74, joined the bench in 2003. A Democrat, he was previously involved in resolving disputes arising from James’ investigation of Trump. In that role, he forced Trump to sit for a deposition and, last year, held him in contempt of court and fined him $110,000 for being slow to respond to a subpoena.
As the judge explained when the trial started, he’ll be deciding the case because neither side sought a jury and state law doesn’t allow for juries for this type of lawsuit.
James wants the Trump defendants banned from doing business in New York. She’s also seeking the return of $250 million in what she alleges were ill-gotten gains.
PRETRIAL RULING: WASN’T SOME OF THIS DECIDED ALREADY?
In a decision last month, Engoron resolved the lawsuit’s top claim, ruling that Trump committed years of fraud by inflating the value of assets in his financial statements.
Among other things, the judge rebuked Trump for lying about the size of his Trump Tower penthouse, writing: “A discrepancy of this order of magnitude, by a real estate developer sizing up his own living space of decades, can only be considered fraud.”
Engoron ordered that a court-appointed receiver take control of some Trump companies, putting the future oversight of Trump Tower and other marquee properties in doubt. An appeals court has since blocked enforcement of that aspect of the ruling, at least for now.
The trial concerns six remaining claims in the lawsuit, including allegations of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.
THE STAKES: IS THIS A CRIMINAL CASE?
No. Trump has four pending criminal cases. This is not one of them.
Manhattan prosecutors had looked into bringing criminal charges over the allegations in James’ lawsuit but declined to do so.
Instead, the Manhattan district attorney’s office charged Trump in March with falsifying business records related to hush money paid on his behalf.
Indictments in Georgia and Washington, D.C. allege Trump plotted to overturn his 2020 election loss. In Florida, he is charged with hoarding classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
Michael R. Sisak, The Associated Press