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Trump returns to New York courtroom as business associates testify in fraud trail

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Donald Trump was back in court in New York Tuesday. This was in the civil case that alleges a widespread business conspiracy. The former president watched for hours as witnesses gave evidence of the ways his company lied about the value of its properties. Joining us to talk about the trial is NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Good morning.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So what was Trump doing in court yesterday?

BERNSTEIN: His former fixer, Michael Cohen, had been scheduled to testify but delayed due to health reasons. But Trump came anyway to watch a Trump Organization bookkeeper and an appraiser talk about the inner workings of his business. Both witnesses in different ways cast doubt on the veracity of Trump Organization's books. Trump mostly had his say in the hallway outside the courtroom, where he said he was being railroaded, but inside, he had to sit and look at spreadsheets along with the rest of us. The numbers are so tiny on the screens in the court that some reporters have taken to bringing binoculars to see them.

MARTIN: OK, makes sense. What have we learned so far in this case?

BERNSTEIN: So we've heard from some really key employees and contractors like Trump's CFO Allen Weisselberg, Trump's outside accountant and a banker at Deutsche Bank. And there's been a slow and kind of painstaking evidence trail emerging, showing that a small group of Trump Organization insiders, while they seemed to be consulting with reputable outside companies, kept a close hold on what the values of the properties should be, even discussing adding a, quote, "presidential premium" for some properties. The defendants all deny wrongdoing.

MARTIN: We're in the third week of the trial. Did we learn something yesterday?

BERNSTEIN: Yeah. The most dramatic part of testimony yesterday came from a witness named Douglas Larson. He's been an appraiser for 30 years and has valued some big Trump properties like Trump Tower, Niketown and 40 Wall Street, which is a big office building. The AG's office laid out documents showing that the Trump Organization claimed it had calculated the value of these big properties based on the appraiser's numbers, but over and over again for each property, the appraiser said, nope, that's not accurate. That's not true. The numbers were not from him, and they were incorrect. They were too high.

MARTIN: So has the Trump Organization said how they arrived at their values?

BERNSTEIN: So one example, according to the attorney general, from 40 Wall Street, Larson calculated it was worth 540 million. But the AG's office displayed a document showing the Trump Organization said it was worth 200 million more, 735 million. The AG's office showed in that case, a Trump employee added $120 million in value for a lease from a high-end food store. But the witness said he had already factored that in. The AG called this double counting.

MARTIN: What's the defense to all of this?

BERNSTEIN: It's kind of like Trump's defense in other areas, which is that he has the right to his own facts. He and his lawyers say the value of a property is worth what people will pay and that when you're president, people will pay more. Trump's lawyers tried to show appraisals can vary, that they're an art as well as a science. But the appraiser held his ground. He'll finish up today.

MARTIN: And what about Michael Cohen? You mentioned that health concerns kept him from testifying. As briefly as you can, what is he expected to say?

BERNSTEIN: He is really at the heart of the case. It was his testimony before Congress about the double valuation that really launched this investigation. He's shown he has detailed knowledge and also he's a convicted felon. So there should be some drama there.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Andrea, thanks so much for sharing this reporting with us.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Andrea Bernstein