NEW YORK – Former President Donald Trump’s inaugural address clocked in at just 16 minutes. Closing arguments that are slated for Thursday in his company’s criminal tax fraud case? Prosecutors and defense lawyers say those could take seven hours or more.
Those projections speak to the complexity of the case, which stems from longtime Trump Organization finance chief Allen Weisselberg's 15-year scheme to avoid taxes on company-paid perks including an apartment and luxury cars.
The speeches are a chance to recap key witnesses and evidence before the jury deliberates next week. Prosecutors said they might spend four or five hours summarizing the case. Defense lawyers said they’ll likely need at least three hours.
Seven witnesses testified, chief among them Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty in August to dodging taxes on $1.7 million in extras. Prosecutors charged the company because it said Weisselberg was a “high managerial agent” acting on its behalf and that it also benefitted from his scheme.
Trump Organization lawyers argue Weisselberg acted on his own, without Trump or the Trump family’s knowledge. If anything, they said, the company's accountant should've caught any fraud. Trump is not charged. If convicted, his company could be fined more than $1 million.
Although there were just 10 days of testimony, the trial has stretched on since Halloween.
That’s partly because Jeffrey McConney, the Trump Organization comptroller called as the first prosecution witness, tested positive for COVID-19 early on, halting the trial for eight days.
Here’s a refresher on what’s happened so far.
EXECUTIVES ADMIT TAX DODGE SCHEME
Prosecutors built their case around Weisselberg, who testified as part of a plea deal in exchange for a promised sentence of five months in jail, and McConney, who was granted immunity to testify.
Weisselberg, 75, testified he and McConney conspired to hide extras from his income by fudging payroll records to deduct their cost from his salary and issuing falsified W-2 forms.
The arrangement reduced Weisselberg’s tax liability but also saved the company money because it didn’t have to pay him more to cover the cost of the perks.
“It was my own personal greed that led to this,” an emotional Weisselberg testified.
McConney testified that Weisselberg and another executive, Michael Calamari Sr., pressured him to alter payroll records. The company also provided no-or-low cost apartments to Calamari and Weisselberg's son, who helped manage a company-run ice rink in Central Park.
McConney said he feared he'd be fired if he alerted Trump to the scheme.
WEISSELBERG: A STAR FOR BOTH SIDES
While Weisselberg struck a deal to be the prosecution’s star witness, he proved to be a star for the defense, too.
In three days of testimony, Weisselberg detailed how he and the Trump Organization both benefited from his scheme to avoid taxes on his company-paid perks — the crux of a prosecution that seeks to hold the company accountable for the sins of one of its most trusted figures.
But Weisselberg also testified that neither Trump nor his family knew about his scheming while it was happening — a win for the company’s defense team whose mantra is “Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg.”
Trump noticed, posting on social media while Weisselberg was testifying that the case had “fallen apart."
Weisselberg still works for the company and had a birthday party at Trump Tower in August, around the time of his plea. He is scheduled to be formally sentenced on Dec. 19.
ONE CHRISTMAS BONUS, LOTS OF CHECKS
The trial has also spotlighted other pay practices in place at the Trump Organization before Trump became president in 2017, including a scheme to avoid taxes on holiday bonuses it paid executives.
Weisselberg said the company paid executives as independent contractors by drawing bonus payments from subsidiary entities such as Mar-a-Lago and the company he used to produce “The Apprentice” TV show. That allowed the company to avoid payroll taxes and the subsidiaries to deduct the bonuses as expenses.
Trump “always wanted to sign the bonus checks,” had then be stuffed into Christmas cards and handed them out like Santa Claus to executives around the building, Weisselberg said.
McConney said the company abandoned that arrangement at the behest of a tax lawyer brought in to audit the company's financial practices following Trump’s election.
TRUMP’S LONG SHADOW
Trump didn’t attend the trial, but his name came up frequently in testimony — and he signaled on social media that he's been following the proceedings closely.
“The very unfair Manhattan D.A. Fringe Benefits Case, the likes of which has never been prosecuted in our Country before, has fallen apart,” Trump wrote Tuesday on his Truth Social platform. “There was no gain for ‘Trump,’ and we had no knowledge of it.”
Prosecutors gave mixed signals about Trump’s importance to the case, telling a judge early on “This case is not about Donald Trump,” but then repeatedly asking witnesses about him. Weisselberg described Trump as a hands-on boss prior to leaving for the White House.
Defense lawyers and some witnesses made a point to refer to Trump as “President Trump,” leading to a humorous moment as McConney described his understanding of why the company had changed its pay practices.
“Nobody told me this change came specifically because Mr. Trump became President Trump," McConney said.
CAN I HAVE THE DEFINITION, PLEASE?
How jurors decide the case could come down to semantics.
The defense and prosecution spent hours Tuesday sparring over jury instructions, turning the tax case into a syntax case as they parsed the meaning of a single phrase — “in behalf of” — in the 1965 state law underlying some of the charges.
A defense lawyer even read off a definition from a 1960s dictionary he found while digging through legislative records in Albany. It said “in behalf of” means “for the primary purpose of benefiting.”
The defense argued that the way the phrase is used in the law, prosecutors had to have shown that the Weisselberg intended to help the company’s bottom line, not just his own.
Ultimately, it’ll be Judge Juan Manuel Merchan’s definition of “in behalf of” that jurors will have to rely on. He's expected to instruct the jury in the law either Friday or Monday.