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The latest in Trump's New York civil fraud trial

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

Former President Trump is facing multiple charges in multiple states. And this past week, all eyes were on a courtroom in New York. That's because two of his sons, Eric and Donald Jr., testified in the civil fraud trial there. Now, at the heart of this case, it involves inflated financial statements, which both brothers deny being involved in. And, like their father, the brothers are also defendants in the case. Each week, we're taking a few minutes to talk through significant developments in the former president's trial. And this week, my colleague Scott Detrow was joined by two guests, NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro and New York University law professor Melissa Murray, who's co-author of an upcoming book, "The Trump Indictments." The trio started off by digging into what stood out about the Trump brothers as witnesses.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Well, I mean, the fact is, we have these two sons, nobody who's taking responsibility for any of what the Trump Organization has been accused of, and, you know, not only accused of but found guilty of when it comes to fraud, for example. And their names and fingerprints are all over, you know, the emails, and yet nobody taking any kind of responsibility with any of that.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Melissa, what did you make of this from a legal perspective, this general argument from both sons that the financial documents in question were just something that was not on their radar, that they were not in the weeds of these, that you can't really hold them responsible for the potential fraud in these documents?

MELISSA MURRAY: Both sons essentially said that while they were running this business in their father's stead, they were effectively paper pushers. They had these appraisals. The appraisals were done by the accounting firm, and they merely signed off on it. And that is perhaps a little surprising. For publicly traded companies, most people who are running these companies have to sign off that they have done their due diligence in reviewing these accounting statements, and that they are basically attesting to the validity and accuracy of those statements. And although it is not required of privately held companies like the Trump Organization, it's basically become a feature of corporate governance now, that all corporations kind of abide by the same set of rules, that when you have these statements, you verify them. You look at them. You don't simply sign off on them because someone else did it.

DETROW: So generally speaking, then, there was a repeated theme of, yes, I was on that call. Yes, I was on that email, but I had so many other things going on that it did not register to me. I was not in the weeds on that. Is that, generally speaking, not an argument that holds up legally?

MURRAY: Eric Trump, I think, was most explicit about distancing himself in this way. And he was like, you know, I'm a construction guy. I run projects. I deal in concrete. I'm not the guy digging into valuations. I rely on the accountants for that. And when you're the person at the head of the organization and you're signing off on these statements about how you're valuing things, how you're accounting for the funds going in and out of your corporation, you kind of do have to be that details guy.

MONTANARO: I also think it's interesting because during the trial, you had the Trump Organization comptroller, Jeff McConney, testifying that Eric essentially directed him to make decisions that led to these inflated values. So, you know, you have Eric then denying that he really was paying that close attention. And it's like, you know, a ghost came down and made these decisions when you've really got this trend over time within the Trump Organization, and somebody's calling the shots.

DETROW: How do you think of testimony differently when you know that it's a judge who's absorbing it and making a decision and not a jury who probably does not have, even though they're going to get the context in the case, the legal and financial framework for the level of detail that we're talking about here.

MURRAY: So bench trials are very different from jury trials. You know, the jury, there's a lot of emotion that may go into the way a case is presented. You're meant to create a narrative, tell a story. Here, there is a story to be told, but it's to a very savvy, very teched-up audience. And Judge Engoron knows what the statutes are. He will have a good grasp of what's happening in the courtroom and what's required in order for the government to establish its case. And again, this is a civil case, so the government only needs to establish their case by a preponderance of the evidence. It's a much lower standard than reasonable doubt that's available in criminal cases.

DETROW: I wanted to shift gears to talk about next week. The big news will be Donald Trump testifying. Domenico, we have had countless numbers of depositions that Trump has sat for over the years. Do you have a sense of what the pattern has been, how Donald Trump conducts himself on the witness stand under oath compared to how he conducts himself running for president?

MONTANARO: Far more sober on the witness stand and under oath because there are real penalties that come with lying under oath. There's no penalty for lying just generally out in public, talking to people or running a political campaign. There are real penalties if you perjure yourself. But the fact that his organization, the place with his name on it, is being essentially threatened to go into extinction after, you know, growing up in Queens - and anybody who's grown up in Queens - yours truly - knows that the way to "make it," quote-unquote, is to say that you made it in the city, that the city...

DETROW: Wait, Domenico, you're from Queens? I had no idea.

MONTANARO: You had no idea, I know.

MURRAY: Can I add something to that, Domenico?

DETROW: Yes. Are you from Queens, though, Melissa?

MURRAY: I'm not from Queens. I'm from Brooklyn.

MONTANARO: OK. But you can - there you go. That's OK.

MURRAY: Brooklyn. Same idea. Same vibe.

MONTANARO: BQE going on, yeah.

DETROW: Yeah. Miles Morales-Peter Parker divide here. Go ahead, Melissa.

MURRAY: His political future, his political path, his political legacy kind of depends on the story of a mogul, an outsider, who shook up New York and then went and shook up 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

DETROW: One last question to both of you, and, Melissa, I'll start with you. What was your big takeaway from this week?

MURRAY: I think the Trump team knows that they're on the ropes with some of this testimony, and, you know, if the law is not on your side, go to the facts. If the facts aren't on your side, go to the law. And if neither is on your side, pound the table and make some noise.

DETROW: Domenico?

MONTANARO: Yeah. I really think that the big thing here is perception, right? I mean, this is about politics for the former president. It's also about his business substantively. But if he can convince his base that he still didn't do anything wrong and this is all just a, quote-unquote, "witch hunt," then he still has a strong political chance of being the Republican nominee. But if it starts to be able to creep in as - that he actually did do something wrong and it starts to seep into the consciousness of the Republican base that maybe he's not going to be the strongest candidate in a general election, then that could be a real problem for him. And you have candidates on the Republican side, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who this week said that a conviction would be, quote-unquote, "fatal" for former President Trump if he were to run in a general election.

DETROW: That is senior political editor and correspondent and perpetual Queens native Domenico Montanaro. Thank you, Domenico.

MONTANARO: I don't think you can change that.

DETROW: We've also been joined by Melissa Murray, New York University law professor and co-author of the upcoming book "The Trump Indictments." Thanks to you, too.

MURRAY: Thank you.

MA: Scott and his panel will be back again next week with the latest on Trump's trials.

(SOUNDBITE OF SZA SONG, "GOOD DAYS") 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.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.