Major Trump Donor and Longtime Real Estate ‘Pal’ Makes Debut as Expert Witness in Civil Fraud Trial

Steven Witkoff, who donated millions to Trump's cause, became the first expert witness for the ex-president’s defense during the civil fraud trial

Published 11/14/23 01:00 PM ET|Updated 11/14/23 02:59 PM ET
Adam Klasfeld
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A longtime friend and heavy-hitter donor to the former president, real estate executive Steven Witkoff became the first expert witness for Donald Trump in a lower Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday.

"He's been a really good friend, particularly after the death of my son," Witkoff said in court.

By ProPublica’s tally of federal records as of May 2021, Witkoff had donated more than $2 million to the former president's political action groups, and he became one of Trump’s informal advisers on tax cuts during his administration. Trump took credit for Witkoff’s entrance into the real estate industry and during a roundtable discussion from 2018, the then-president called Witkoff his "pal."

That affection was on display during Witkoff’s testimony, where the witness recalled his first meeting with Trump at a delicatessen more than two decades ago — and their subsequent, enduring friendship. He was the third defense witness, after son Donald Trump Jr. and tax lawyer Sheri Dillon, and the first expert to testify. Asked by the judge if he ever testified as an expert before Tuesday, Witkoff paused briefly before responding: "I don't think so."

"My mother might think I am," Witkoff joked, to laughter in the court.

After his preliminary remarks about his life in real estate and friendship with Trump, Witkoff’s testimony was significantly restricted by sustained objections by counsel for New York Attorney General Letitia James.

Earlier this month, James unsuccessfully tried to block Witkoff from taking the stand, arguing that his opinions were irrelevant in light of the judge’s pretrial ruling finding Trump, his family members and his business associates liable for fraud.

US President Donald Trump watches his friend Steve Witkoff, who's son died of a prescription drug overdose, speak at the White House Opioid Summit in the East Room of the White House on March 1, 2018 in Washington, DC.Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron admitted Witkoff’s testimony, but the judge warned at the time that he would prohibit irrelevant opinions. Engoron acted upon that advisory on Tuesday, narrowing Witkoff’s opinions on specific Trump properties to only one at issue in the case: 40 Wall Street.

The judge previously found that Trump inflated the value of his downtown skyscraper by hundreds of millions of dollars per year for five years.

But Witkoff said that the building could have been justified by its value, if it were converted into condominiums.

During cross-examination, the state’s counsel Andrew Amer confronted the witness with records showing that option wasn’t available to the Trump Organization, which adjusted the ground lease agreement to state that it "eliminates" the property’s "condominium conversion rights."

In justifying its loadstar estimate of 40 Wall Street, the Trump Organization assigned a capitalization rate that drove up its value. To determine a building’s value, one typically divides its profitability by the cap rate, and so a lower cap rate can dramatically increase its worth.

Earlier in the trial, former Cushman & Wakefield executive director Douglass Larson testified that Trump Organization executives disregarded his estimate of the cap rate to arrive at their figure.

Asked if the records he was shown demonstrate that the company justified the value by citing that cap rate, Witkoff conceded: "I see that."

Trump’s second defense expert Jason Flemmons, an accountant disputing the state’s interpretation of the relevant standards, took the stand shortly after Witkoffs testimony.