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Trump witness claims no evidence of fraud in civil case

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Donald Trump looked on today as an expert witness bolstered a key element of the former president's defense. The witness said categorically that he found no evidence of accounting fraud in Trump's books. And he admonished the New York attorney general's office for, quote, "making up allegations." NPR's Andrea Bernstein was there and joins us now. Hey, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so it sounds like Trump got some backup for his defense today.

BERNSTEIN: Yes. Trump's lawyers called, as their penultimate witness, Dr. Eli Bartov, a highly credentialed accounting professor from New York University who had once served as an expert witness for the New York attorney general's office.

CHANG: (Laughter) OK.

BERNSTEIN: And Bartov just jumped right in saying, quote, "there is no evidence whatsoever for accounting fraud." He sounded like a classroom professor, repeating phrases and saying things like parts of the attorney general's complaint, quote, "border on the absurd" and that, quote, "no valuations are objective because they are, by definition, opinions." He added, if somebody tells you an evaluation is objective, they need to have their head examined. And the witness said that a disclaimer in Trump's statements of financial condition makes it clear that no one should take them at face value, and this was so obvious even his 9-year-old granddaughter could understand.

CHANG: Interesting testimony. OK, so how did the AG's office respond to all of that?

BERNSTEIN: They really wanted to make it clear that Professor Bartov is not an expert in banking or real estate valuations. At one point, Assistant Attorney General Kevin Wallace objected saying, quote, "this is pure speculation from somebody they hired to say whatever they want," at which point Bartov turned to Wallace and said, quote, "you should be ashamed. You make up allegations, and you say I say whatever I want. You should be ashamed of yourself talking to me like that," which is, of course, highly unusual...

CHANG: (Laughter).

BERNSTEIN: ...For a witness. This was right before lunch. And I did catch Trump lawyer Alina Habba smiling as she turned to leave.

CHANG: And am I understanding this correctly? Trump stayed all day to hear this witness.

BERNSTEIN: Yes, even though it got quite repetitive. Trump knows that when he's in the courtroom, we, the press, are there. And we heard Professor Bartov saying the kinds of things that Trump likes to say like, I've never seen a financial statement that provided so much detail. And then, of course, there are all those TV cameras out in the hallway capturing Donald Trump's words when he leaves and when he says things like, he should be in Iowa campaigning. Now, of course, he could be in Iowa. He is here fully by his own choice.

CHANG: So what's next for Trump in this trial?

BERNSTEIN: So in action outside of this courtroom, Trump got some relief today when an appeals court panel affirmed a judge's decision from earlier this fall that the dissolution of Trump's business would remain on hold until this trial is over. You might remember that before the trial even began, the judge found on one cause of action for the attorney general and said that Trump would have to start canceling his business certificates. But that was paused.

And Trump has also lost his efforts, so far, to overturn a gag order that prevents him from disparaging the judge's clerk. Trump's lawyers had complained that this violated Trump's First Amendment rights, but both the trial judge and an appeals panel have ruled otherwise, which means when Trump testifies on Monday, he won't be able to go after the judge's clerk from the witness stand. That'll be the last day of the defense case - after that, a day of rebuttal, followed by briefs and final arguments in court in January; sometime mid-next-month, maybe just before or after the Iowa caucuses, a verdict.

CHANG: A lot coming up. That is NPR's Andrea Bernstein. Thank you, Andrea.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. 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.

Andrea Bernstein