You can know nearly everything you need to know about Donald Trump by recognizing two aspects of his life before seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.
The first is that he was the all-powerful head of a private company, granting him sweeping powers that in a political context would be deemed autocratic. The second is that he applied those powers to the world of New York City real estate, an industry riddled with dishonest actors and larded-on costs. Combine those two things and, of course, the result is a president with no apparent regard for the federal separation of powers who will say anything that comes to mind in an effort to close the deal.
The sense in which Trump is the consummate salesman that he presents himself to be is one in which he consistently overinflates what he has to offer. His customers are then left in the unenviable position of admitting they got hustled or nodding along with their peers at the emperor’s luxurious new clothes — on those rare occasions, that is, when the dishonesties are even admitted.
On Monday, though, Trump’s habit of making false claims to get what he wants slammed into two legal barriers. Most of the 30,000-plus dishonest or misleading things he said as president could be chalked up to a politician politicking, albeit on an unusual (if not world-historic) scale. Sometimes, though, his disregard for honesty crossed a more serious line.
You are probably aware that Trump appeared in a New York courtroom this week as New York Supreme Court Judge Arthur F. Engoron decides what penalty to apply to Trump and the Trump Organization for its years-long pattern of overstating the value of its properties to business partners.
That Trump was engaged in such inflation is not surprising, coming from a guy who claimed at the outset of his 2016 campaign to be worth two to three times what independent observers calculated and who had, in the past, boasted that he tallied his personal value based on his own emotions.
What was a bit surprising was the scale of the overstatements Trump and his company made, often telling potential lenders that a property was worth huge multiples of what independent (and even some internal) assessments established.
Trump presented a defense of this overstatement while on the stand on Monday: The assessments were accompanied by a disclaimer that, in his assessment, absolved him of any culpability for inaccuracy.
The disclaimer, which Trump has repeatedly called a “worthless” disclaimer — as though the language made obvious that the assertions of value were worthless — asserts that “use of different market assumptions and/or estimation methodologies may have a material effect on the estimated current value amounts.”
Trump argued, in essence, that this gave him carte blanche to present any valuation he saw fit, applying the principle of caveat emptor to the whole process.
But Engoron had already dismissed this argument, as he reminded Trump. In his original determination that Trump’s company had overstated its valuations, the judge noted that “a defendant may not rely on a disclaimer for misrepresentation of facts peculiarly within the defendant’s knowledge.”
In other words, the disclaimer is not a get-out-of-being-sued-free card for presenting any valuation you want (as Trump seemed to suggest on the stand).
Writing at Substack, Chris Cillizza points out how Trump’s shrugging about this dishonesty should inform our understanding of his approach to politics: He’s willing to say untrue, baseless things, offshoring the ramifications of acting on those false claims to others.
It’s not that we didn’t know that Trump was dishonest, of course. But there was always the lingering question of the extent to which Trump himself believed his nonsense. This argument suggests that he is at least to some extent willing to say something usefully untrue if he has cover to do so.
Which brings us to the other legal development for Trump on Monday.
Special counsel Jack Smith, who has brought federal charges against Trump in two jurisdictions, filed new arguments in the case that’s in D.C. federal court. This is the one centered on Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and his role in fomenting the violence that unfolded at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
In two filings, Smith’s team pushed back on arguments Trump’s attorneys were making in an effort to weaken the case against their client.
At one point, the filing addresses the Trump team’s assertion that the former president actually believed the election was stolen, meaning that he was acting with sincere intent. Smith’s lawyers didn’t adjudicate this dubious claim (see above) but, instead, noted that it was unimportant given that Trump allegedly made claims he knew to be false in seeking to retain his office.
“[E]ven if the defendant could supply admissible evidence of his own personal belief that the election was ‘rigged’ or ‘stolen,’ ‘ they wrote, “it would not license him to deploy fraud and deceit to remedy what he perceived to be a wrong, and it would not provide a defense to the charge.” There is no such evidence, either that it was rigged or that he believed it was, but the point is that it doesn’t matter.
Smith’s team also drew an unsubtle analogy, as journalist Marcy Wheeler noted.
“Just as the president of a company may be guilty of fraud for using knowingly false statements of facts to defraud investors, even if he subjectively believes that his company will eventually succeed,” they wrote, emphasis added, “the defendant may be guilty of using deceit to obstruct the government function by which the results of the presidential election are collected, counted, and certified, even if he provides evidence that he subjectively believed that the election was ‘rigged.’”
That’s the through-line. Trump will say false things to get more money or to stoke anger at his election loss or to better position himself in the polls. Sometimes, those false claims cross legal lines, as (according to the judge) they did in New York or (according to Smith) they did in the run-up to Jan. 6.
It’s not just that the Manhattan real estate guy was dishonest, a largely redundant descriptor given the title. It’s that he was allegedly dishonest in an effort to get what he wanted and in violation of federal and state statutes. Take away that dishonesty and you take away the legal fights.
And, probably, his presidency.