Donald Trump began testifying on Monday morning in his civil fraud trial, producing a spectacle of a former president and the leading Republican presidential candidate defending himself against allegations that he drastically inflated his net worth.
“I think this is a political witch hunt and she should be ashamed of herself,” Mr Trump said, referring to New York State Attorney General Letitia James, whose office brought the case. "This is the opposite of fraud. The fraud is her.”
Ms James, who was in the courtroom, stared straight ahead at Mr Trump as he spoke.
His turn in the witness box, in a case that cuts to the heart of the business brand he spent decades crafting, amounts to a remarkable convergence of his legal troubles and his political ventures.
The judge presiding over the trial repeatedly admonished Mr Trump to keep his answers concise, reminding him that “this is not a political rally”.
“We don't have time to waste. We have one day to do this,” exasperated Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron said. At another point, turning to Mr Trump's lawyer, the judge said: “I beseech you to control him if you can. If you can't, I will.”
The testimony gives him the opportunity to try to use the witness box as a campaign platform as he attempts a return to the White House while facing several criminal indictments, but its under-oath format, before a judge who has already fined him for incendiary comments outside of court, creates clear peril for a businessman and candidate famous for a freewheeling rhetorical display.
Yet even though the fraud case does not carry the prospect of prison like criminal prosecutions do, its allegations of financial impropriety have cut to the heart of the brand he spent decades crafting in the property sector.
Mr Trump took the suggestion that he is worth less than he has claimed as a personal insult.
“I'm worth billions of dollars more than the financial statements,” he said at one point, telling a state lawyer: "You go around and try and demean me and try and hurt me, probably for political reasons.”
Outside the courtroom, Mr Trump has taken full advantage of the bank of assembled media to voice his outrage and spin the days' proceedings in the most favourable way.
“Mr Kise, can you control your client? This is not a political rally, this is a courtroom,” Mr Engoron told lawyer Christopher Kise, who himself has clashed with the judge. Mr Kise responded that Mr Trump was entitled to latitude as a former president and current candidate taking time away from the campaign to be on the witness box.
“The court needs to hear what he has to say about these statements, why they’re viable and why there was no intent” to deceive anyone, Mr Kise said.
Mr Engoron, who determined in a ruling earlier that Mr Trump committed fraud for years while building the property empire that catapulted him to fame, cautioned at one point he was prepared to draw “negative inferences” against the former president if he failed to rein in his answers.
“I do not want to hear everything this witness has to say. He has a lot to say that has nothing to do with the case or the questions.”
The courtroom has already become a familiar destination for Mr Trump. He has spent hours over the past month voluntarily seated at the defence table, observing the proceedings. He once took the stand – unexpectedly and briefly – after he was accused of violating a partial gag order.
Mr Trump denied violating the rules, but Judge Arthur Engoron disagreed and fined him anyway.
He will also be coming face-to-face again on Monday with Engoron, whom he has lambasted on his social media site in recent days as a “wacko” and “RADICAL LEFT, DEMOCRAT OPERATIVE JUDGE” who has already “ruled viciously” against him.
Though Michael Cohen, his fixer-lawyer-turned-witness, had initially said that he planned to also be in court, he told The Associated Press on Monday that he would no longer attend because his presence created a potential security challenge.
Trump at court for New York civil fraud trial – in pictures
Echoing the stance taken by two of his sons, Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump, in their own testimony, Mr Trump sought to play down his direct involvement in preparing and assessing the financial statements the attorney general claims were grossly inflated and fraudulent.
“All I did was authorise and tell people to give whatever is necessary for the accountants to do the statements,” he said. As for the results, “I would look at them, I would see them and maybe on some occasions, I would have some suggestions.”
Eric Trump, the former president's middle son, who testified in the case last week, said his father was eager for his appearance on the stand.
“I know he’s very fired up to be here. And he thinks that this is one of the most incredible injustices that he’s ever seen. And it truly is,” the younger Mr Trump told reporters on Friday, insisting his family was winning even though the judge has already ruled mostly against them.