Former President Donald Trump boasts about his children following in his footsteps. This week and last, three of the ex-president’s offspring are doing just that—following his footsteps into a Manhattan courtroom to testify as witnesses called by the State of New York in its civil fraud trial.
Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump both testified last week, and Donald Trump himself takes the stand on Monday, with Ivanka Trump slated to testify starting on Wednesday. This wasn’t, one imagines, the example the former president was hoping to set.
The case brought by the New York attorney general puts Trump’s business empire at risk. Unsurprisingly, Trump has blasted the trial as a “witch hunt” (just as he has impugned his two prior impeachments, four pending criminal cases, and a variety of other proceedings against him). But with trial judge Arthur Engoron recently having granted partial summary judgment and found systematic fraud, Trump appears to be on the verge of a devastating defeat and is in urgent need of a lifeline.
Unfortunately for Trump, his sons are in no position to help him, and his daughter is likely not coming to his rescue either. And he surely knows it.
Let’s review where Trump stands now, on the eve of his testimony.
In September 2021, following a comprehensive three-year investigation, Attorney General Letitia James filed a complaint with seven causes of action on behalf of the people of New York alleging that Trump committed “staggering” frauds.
The state alleges Trump falsified his personal and business financial statements to grossly inflate his net worth by sums that may range into the billions of dollars. Allegedly, he did so to obtain favorable terms for loans and insurance coverage. Trump, Eric, Don Jr., and Ivanka were all named as defendants, although in June 2023 Ivanka succeeded in having the case against her dismissed because her involvement was outside of the statute of limitations.
This past September, Judge Engoron granted partial summary judgment against Trump and the other defendants, finding conclusive evidence that, from 2014 through 2021, they had materially overvalued Trump’s assets between $812 million and $2.2 billion.
This fraud went beyond sophisticated accounting tricks. Trump and his co-defendants engaged in alleged falsehoods that would make even the most accomplished con man blush.
While exact numbers varied from year to year, Trump and co. claimed that his Trump Tower penthouse apartment was 30,000 square feet when it was actually less than 11,000 square feet—resulting in an overvaluation of between $114 million and $207 million; that 212 acres of land in Westchester County, New York, was worth between $261 million and $291 million when contemporaneous, independent appraisals at times valued it below $30 million; and that his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida was worth between $426 million and $612 million—more than 23 times the appraised market value.
Finding that Trump’s financial statements reflected a “fantasy world” that constituted persistent and repeated fraud as alleged in the first cause of action, Judge Engoron imposed what amounts to a “corporate death penalty”: cancellation of many of the Trump Organization’s business certifications. He also ordered a receiver to manage the liquidation of assets and dissolution of the affected businesses. And he ordered that Judge Barbara Jones, who had been tasked in November 2022 with temporarily monitoring the Trump Organization in the months leading up to trial (due to the defendants’ “propensity to engage in persistent fraud”), continue to serve as an independent monitor of the company indefinitely. (Trump appealed the order, as well as a supplemental order, and the cancellation of his business certificates has been stayed pending the appeal.)
The judge then set a trial date to address the remaining causes of action for falsifying business records, filing false financial statements, and insurance fraud, to determine the amount of proceeds from the fraud and to assess other remedies.
That trial—in which Engoron is both presiding and serving as finder of fact—began on Oct. 2. Given his earlier ruling, it may seem like the state’s case is in the bag. But the judge has pointed out that the state still has to meet its burden on the remaining causes of action and penalties—that is, as he wrote in his partial summary judgment order, “demonstrating some component of intent and materiality.”
And whatever the judge does, Trump will certainly appeal. Accordingly, the attorney general’s office has been diligently presenting its case to persuade the judge and to prepare for eventual appellate review.
While the partial summary judgment decision was based largely on documents, the witness testimony is a critical part of the current trial, where a central question is that of the defendants’ intent. This is where Trump’s children come in.
In their testimony last week, Don Jr. and Eric did not try to save their father. Don Jr. distanced himself from the preparation of the financial statements, shifting blame to the accountants who prepared them for him to sign as trustee of his father’s revocable trust. He claimed, incredibly, that his signature attesting to the accuracy of the financials was “not a symbol of yes or no.”
Eric took a similar approach to his big brother, saying he was not involved with the preparation of the financial statements and knew “nothing” about them. On cross-examination, however, prosecutors confronted him with emails documenting his involvement, including an email expressly discussing the valuation of the Westchester County property. As for Don Jr., he too was revealed to have contradicted himself, according to reporting.
Both sons are defendants in the case, and the court already found each was liable for a part in the fraud. It was doubtful they would have had much to offer in the way of credible explanations for the disparities in valuations that would persuade the judge. Ultimately, they appear to have failed that test.
It seems unlikely that Trump will do any better when he testifies. If he attempts, unlike his sons, to justify the extreme overvaluations, he will be confronted with both the reality of the actual numbers and his knowledge of them. If he attempts, like his sons, to dance away from the true valuations, the AG will rub his nose in evidence that he knew the truth all along.
In either event, he will face the great likelihood of being found not credible by a judge who has already made such a finding about Trump when he tried to explain his violation of the court’s gag order. And Trump can’t take the Fifth Amendment, and is showing no signs of preparing to do so, because unlike in a criminal case that would allow the judge to draw an adverse inference and rule against him.
This means Trump will likely take the same strategy as his sons of refusing to reject the bad numbers and pointing a finger at the accountants and other professionals—which leaves Ivanka as Trump’s last hope. Unfortunately for him, she is unlikely to be his saving grace when she testifies Wednesday. Don’t get us wrong: No one should be expecting Ivanka to sell out her father completely and admit the fraud. But she is going to be put in a bind that even Houdini could not escape.
It’s possible to picture Trump attempting nonsensical explanations for the yawning gaps between the genuine numbers and those he put forth. Indeed, we shouldn’t discount the possibility that he tries that on the stand, in the hope that Ivanka may somehow back him up. But we cannot imagine Ivanka—with her meticulously crafted image and her penchant for cautious public statements—doing so. Because some of the valuations appear so fanciful, she would risk perjuring herself.
But if she tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, she’ll be forced to contradict her father and her brothers and acknowledge what’s painfully obvious: that the valuations claimed by the Trump Organization are highly dubious.
Of all his children, Ivanka has seemingly demonstrated the greatest willingness to speak honestly about her father. Look no further than her testimony before the Jan. 6 committee. There, she admitted that she accepted Attorney General Bill Barr’s conclusion that there was no evidence of fraud in the 2020 presidential election—a sharp contrast to her brothers spreading baseless conspiracy theories about the election being rigged. Her video testimony was repeatedly played by the committee as it made the case against her father. Moreover, Ivanka announced last year that she would not be involved in Trump’s 2024 election campaign.
For his part, Trump lashed out at the judge for ordering Ivanka’s testimony, which suggests he may grasp the potential damage his daughter poses.
Still, it is probably too much to expect that Ivanka will be fully candid when she testifies on Wednesday. Even her useful Jan. 6 testimony pulled some punches, and we can expect the same here. Her most likely way out of this impossible spot is to take the same course as her brothers and distance herself from the numbers without expressly repudiating them, while blaming the accountants. As a non-defendant, she may be more successful than the rest of her family in disclaiming knowledge of the alleged frauds.
That will keep her out of hot water—but it will do little to help her father and the other co-defendants win the case. Although Trump’s freedom is not on the line as it is in his criminal cases, the civil fraud trial may be the most threatening for him personally. Trump’s projection of success and wealth has always been his identity. But the New York attorney general is lifting the curtain on this mirage, with help from Trump’s own children.
We are looking at a trial outcome that may strike a blow to Trump’s core in a way few other setbacks have. Combined with four looming federal and state criminal trials and several of his former enablers and accomplices pleading guilty in those or other proceedings—Michael Cohen, Allen Weisselberg, Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, and Kenneth Chesebro—the former president may come to the same conclusion that many of us have reached: that the legal walls are finally closing in.