Donald J. Trump’s signature properties are at the heart of a sweeping civil fraud case accusing him of manipulating their values and his net worth. But to hear the former president’s eldest son tell it, those properties prove something far rosier: the brilliance of the Trump family business.
Trump Tower, Donald Trump Jr. declared on the witness stand Monday, is admired as “genius.” Mar-a-Lago is “one of the few American castles.” And 40 Wall Street, the family’s towering office building across from the New York Stock Exchange, has vaults that are “a mechanical work of art.”
In a return appearance at a trial that has featured a parade of Trumps on the stand as they fight for the future of their family business, the junior Mr. Trump testified in bursts of hyperbole and platitudes. His rhetoric sounded as though it had been ripped from the pages of an airline magazine or a travel brochure, and he saved the highest praise for the man who he said made it all happen: his father, a “visionary” who is “an artist with real estate” and “creates things that other people would never envision.”
Yet some of his high-flying claims clashed with present-day reality.
In recent years, the Trump Organization has shrunk, as the family name was scrubbed from some of the properties he extolled, taken off buildings in New York, Washington and, soon, Hawaii. Trump Tower and 40 Wall Street have also, at times, lost a number of tenants. Some of the former president’s properties struggled even to turn a profit.
None of that seemed to deter Donald Trump Jr. during his three-and-a-half hour turn on the stand on Monday. His testimony was the start of the defense’s case, the family’s rebuttal to New York’s attorney general, Letitia James.
She has accused the former president, his company and his sons Donald Jr. and Eric of fraudulently inflating the value of assets to obtain favorable loans from banks. When Mr. Trump last testified, Ms. James’s office called him to the stand to face a grilling on the accuracy of his father’s annual financial statements.
With his own lawyers questioning him, Mr. Trump’s testimony adopted a rhapsodic tone that aimed to create a parallel universe from the one that operated in the previous six weeks of the trial, when the attorney general’s office laid out its case. Whereas Ms. James’s office presented spreadsheets, emails and financial statements, Mr. Trump’s lawyers showed him dozens of pictures of luxury properties, and he opined about them lovingly and at length.
His testimony was key to the defense’s argument: that Trump properties are extremely valuable and the company’s annual financial statements, if anything, underrated them. His father, called to the stand last week by the attorney general’s office, is expected to return in the coming weeks to make the same contention.
The judge who will decide the nonjury case, Arthur F. Engoron, has often been impatient with the Trumps and their lawyers, reining in rambling and off-topic responses. And he has already ruled that Mr. Trump and his sons committed fraud, meaning the trial is largely intended to determine the punishment he will impose. (Ms. James is seeking a $250 million penalty, among other consequences).
But on Monday, Justice Engoron brushed aside objections from state lawyers to Mr. Trump’s testimony, saying, “Let him go ahead and talk about how great the Trump Organization is.”
Mr. Trump began at the beginning, describing his great-grandfather developing hotels in the Yukon during the gold rush. A picture of his father with his grandfather, Fred Trump, appeared on a screen, injecting sentiment into a proceeding rooted in cold facts.
Although the company has became international, he said that it is still run like “a mom-and-pop” and is successful thanks to the variety and value of its properties and his father’s leadership.
Asked for an example, Mr. Trump cited the inclusion of gyms as amenities in luxury buildings, declaring that his father was on the “leading edge” of creating value in that way. Mr. Trump later acknowledged that “maybe someone” had put a gym in a building before, but not at the scale his father did.
He also spun a generous narrative about the company’s turnaround of once-derelict assets, including Wollman Rink in Central Park and 40 Wall Street in Lower Manhattan. In each case, Mr. Trump said the properties had fallen into disrepair, and no one understood their potential. He asserted that it took his father’s genius to bring them into the light.
The company, however, no longer manages the ice rink. New York City moved to cut ties with Mr. Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The Trumps also recently sold their lease on a public golf course in the Bronx, which did not stop the defense from playing a promotional video for the property during Mr. Trump’s testimony on Monday.
And 40 Wall has seen better days. One of Ms. James’s lawyers noted during cross-examination that the building’s occupancy rate has plunged, though the Trumps have not missed a payment.
She also asked if Mr. Trump if it was true that the 18th hole of one of the family’s golf courses had collapsed into the ocean. He acknowledged that it was.
Mr. Trump testified that he once handled leasing at 40 Wall, and that he, his sister Ivanka and his brother Eric came to occupy their own lanes at the Trump Organization. Although he and his siblings all eventually became executive vice presidents, Mr. Trump argued that it operated as “much more of a meritocracy.”
But when his father became president and Ivanka joined him in the White House, he and Eric were given far more responsibility. “We protected the incredible assets that we had,” he testified.
Mr. Trump was at turns boastful and self-deprecating. Speaking about his father’s love for golf, Mr. Trump flashed his sense of humor: “I’m like, the nongolfer of the family which has relegated me to the children’s table in perpetuity,” he said.
Ms. James’s team bristled at Mr. Trump’s rote recital of the company’s history, mounting many objections. But Justice Engoron was patient and seemed to find something of a rapport with Mr. Trump.
Several times, Mr. Trump turned his head and body toward the judge and spoke directly to him, often prompting the judge to smile.
When they first greeted one another as the testimony began on Monday morning, Mr. Trump said, “I’d say it’s good to be here, your honor, but I have a feeling the attorney general would sue me for perjury.”