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The Trump Organization tax evasion trial begins

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In a downtown Manhattan courtroom today, the criminal tax fraud trial of former President Trump's family business got underway in earnest. NPR's Ilya Marritz was in court for opening statements by prosecutors and by the defense, and he is with us now. Hey, Ilya.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Hi. How are you doing?

CHANG: Good. OK, so set the scene for us. What was it like in there?

MARRITZ: So we are in New York state criminal court, and this courtroom has been pretty busy for the past week as the two legal teams worked with the judge to seat a jury. This morning, the jurors filed into the box and took their seats. And it was Susan Hoffinger from the district attorney's office who spoke to them first. And she said this case is about greed and cheating. And then she went into some detail about how one Trump executive in particular, Allen Weisselberg, was paid - in addition to his regular salary - through a lot of big benefits, like an apartment with river views, a couple of Mercedes-Benzes. It amounted to more than $1.7 million in income that neither Weisselberg nor the Trump companies reported. And no one collected or paid taxes on it. And that's the core of the case.

CHANG: OK. That's the prosecution's side. What did the defense say?

MARRITZ: Weisselberg did this for Weisselberg. He was the chief financial officer. And he abused the trust of the Trump business. That was the message from Trump attorney Michael van der Veen. He said the Trump business had outside accountants looking at their books - Mazars USA. It's a big firm - and Mazars did not raise flags or offer any objection to these big-ticket, untaxed benefits, so why should the company question that? The defense's argument is that the real culprit here is Allen Weisselberg, and he has already pleaded guilty. So there is no reason to try to hold the company as a whole to account.

CHANG: So sounds like there was a lot of focus on Allen Weisselberg. What about his boss during all of this, Donald Trump?

MARRITZ: Trump is not a defendant in this case, but his name came up several times. Jurors were told they'll be shown a rental agreement with Donald Trump's signature on it and also a tuition check for Allen Weisselberg's grandkids to attend a private school. And I think all this points to a question that was sort of hovering in the air today, which is, where is Donald Trump in all of this? It's his business with his name on it, yet he didn't know about any of this. And of course, if he did, well, he kept Allen Weisselberg around for decades and decades. How come? In fact, Weisselberg is still on company payroll after pleading guilty to a felony. The defense team did offer an explanation for that today. They said Weisselberg is like family. He's been with the company for so long. And you don't just cast out a family member when they make a serious mistake.

CHANG: Well, for Trump, can you just lay out what is at stake here?

MARRITZ: Donald Trump definitely doesn't want his family company to be convicted of a felony that...

CHANG: Sure.

MARRITZ: ...Could harm the business. He also has a substantial legal team here in place, including two lawyers who represented him at his second impeachment in 2021. Public filings show some of these lawyers have been paid large amounts by the Republican National Committee and a Trump-aligned PAC. And that just sort of underlines how this state tax case, which probably wouldn't attract a lot of attention otherwise, is actually really bound up in national politics.

CHANG: So just real briefly, Ilya, what's next?

MARRITZ: Allen Weisselberg at some point will be called to the stand. He is 75 years old. He's not someone who's been in the spotlight very much, but he was at the center of the business. He has pledged to testify truthfully or potentially face a lot of jail time when he's sentenced after this trial.

CHANG: That is NPR's Ilya Marritz. Thank you so much, Ilya.

MARRITZ: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ilya Marritz