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Closing arguments get underway in the Trump Organization's tax fraud trial

The company is accused of a sweeping 15-year scheme to compensate top executives of former President Donald Trump’s company off the books.

Closing arguments began Thursday in the tax fraud trial of the Trump Organization, which is accused of a sweeping 15-year scheme to compensate top executives of former President Donald Trump’s company off the books.

The defense began by recapping testimony from the prosecution's star witness in the criminal trial, former company chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, and others.

Trump Organization lawyers laid out their case that Weisselberg committed his crimes to benefit himself, saying prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney's office failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did so on behalf of the company.

“We are here today because of one reason and one reason only, because of the greed of Allen Weisselberg,” defense lawyer Susan Necheles said. She added that Weisselberg "wanted a deal with the government because he knew he did something wrong and was afraid of a long prison sentence.”

But prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said that whether Weisselberg was motivated by greed "should never be in question.”

"It wasn’t that they didn’t know what they were doing was illegal," he said of the Trump Organization. "It’s that they didn’t care."

Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty to evading taxes, agreed to testify in exchange for a five-month jail sentence. Prosecutors say he received $1.76 million in “indirect employee compensation” through the scheme, including a rent-free apartment, expensive cars, private school tuition for his grandchildren and new furniture. Other executives got similar perks and were paid bonuses as independent contractors, saving the company payroll taxes.

Weisselberg testified that the Trumps had not been aware of his schemes but that Trump's eldest sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, did not discipline him after they found out.

Weisselberg said he had “betrayed” the Trump family’s trust in him. Although Trump and his sons knew of the perks he received because they would sign the checks, they were unaware of any fraud, he said. And while the company profited from his scams by not having to pay payroll or Medicare taxes, Weisselberg said, it was his “own personal greed that led to this.”

Former CFO Allen Weisselberg leaves the courtroom during a trial at the New York Supreme Court
Former chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg leaves the courtroom during a trial at New York Supreme Court in New York on Nov. 17.Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images file

Weisselberg testified that the only other person in the company who knew about the tax fraud scheme was its controller, Jeffrey McConney, who was called as the first witness and received immunity for his testimony. McConney, however, testified that Weisselberg told him Trump had been aware of the tax scheme when he was running the company.

Necheles said Weisselberg “micromanaged” McConney, showing emails in which he asked Weisselberg for permission to wire money or to cut a check. She noted that McConney testified that he thought that if he "started refusing or fighting back, I would lose my job."

Necheles also recounted McConney's testimony alleging that Matthew Calamari, the company’s chief operating officer, was a beneficiary of the scam. “The tax scheme was done to benefit Weisselberg and Calamari so that they could cheat on their personal taxes. It was all about their personal taxes,” she said.

Necheles also raised the testimony of Donald Bender, a partner at the Trump Organization's former accounting firm, Mazars USA. Bender said that did he not recall seeing emails from company executives about Weisselberg’s income reductions for company-paid extras and that Weisselberg did not inform him about the tax scheme. But Necheles alleged that Bender had gotten too close to Weisselberg and had failed to alert the Trumps to the scam, and she said Bender's behavior was "so problematic" that "prosecutors decided not to call him as a witness.”

Although he was removed as chief financial officer after he was indicted, Weisselberg testified that his duties have remained largely the same and that he is still making the same amount of money — about $1 million a year. The company has also paid for the lawyers representing him in the case, he said.

Lawyers for the company, which pleaded not guilty, argued that Weisselberg acted on his own. Trump, who announced his 2024 presidential bid last month, has not been charged in the case.

For several weeks, the Trump Organization trial has focused on Weisselberg and other senior non-Trump family members, but that may now be changing.

During their closing arguments, attorneys for the Trump Corporation and Trump Payroll Corporation invoked the former president's name several times and made multiple statements that he had no knowledge of any tax schemes or Weisselberg’s admitted illegal activity.

The defense argued strenuously that this was all an effort by a “greedy” Weisselberg to enrich himself and the company was failed when the Trump Organization’s tax preparer didn't flag Weisselberg’s illegal conduct.

Toward the end of the prosecution’s closing argument, Steinglass made passing references to Trump, his son Eric and the Trump family.

When the jury was excused for the day, the defense objected to Steinglass' references to the Trumps. Donald Trump was not accused in the indictment of any illegal activity.

Steinglass countered that the defense opened the door to discussing the Trumps when it repeatedly argued that Donald Trump was unaware of any of the alleged illegal activity by the company during their closing arguments.

The judge agreed with Steinglass, and noted the multiple arguments by the defense seeking to distance Donald Trump from the charged activity in the case.

Steinglass indicated he would like to address the defense claims in his closing arguments, and the judge said the prosecution would be allowed to do so when when they resume Friday.

After lawyers wrap up arguments, the 12-person jury is set to begin deliberations Monday.

The Trump Organization could incur fines up to $1.6 million if it is convicted on all counts. A conviction could also hamper the company’s ability to obtain future financing, experts have said.

Trump has cast the charges as a political hit job.

“There has never been a ‘Fringe Benefits’ case such as this brought before," Trump said in a post on his Truth Social platform last month. "Did a long time executive pay tax on the use of a company car, or a company apartment, or payments (not even taken by us as a tax deduction!) for the education of his grandchildren? For this, he gets handcuffs and jail?”

The company has become ensnared in other legal problems, as well. The New York attorney general’s office also sued the company, Trump and his oldest children last month, alleging they overstated the company’s financial assets by billions of dollars. The civil suit, which Trump has also dismissed as a politically motivated “witch hunt,” seeks to impose about $250 million in penalties and to permanently bar Trump and his three oldest children from serving as officers of any New York-based companies.