More gravy! at the Trump Org fraud trial, Trump is the ‘best’ boss ever

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  • Testimony could wrap up Monday in the Trump Organization’s tax fraud criminal trial.
  • Manhattan jurors are being asked by the defense to see Donald Trump as a forgiving, generous boss.
  • In sum, prosecutors may call the ‘Trump is just generous’ defense a total turkey.

It’s that time of year when we give thanks to those in our lives who embody our most cherished virtues. Selflessness. Generosity. Forgiveness.

Donald J. Trump is to virtuous fellow. At least that’s what lawyers defending his company from a 15-count tax fraud charge hope a Manhattan jury will believe when deliberations begin as early as Tuesday.

For five weeks, jurors have heard defense stories about “Trump the Very Good Boss”: legends of a benevolent, if distant, corporate executive who, although not criminally accused, is always present at the trial.

See! On the witness stand: Two Trump Organization insiders describe how Trump would raise his big black permanent marker every year and sign millions of dollars stacks of Christmas bonus checks.

See! On the overhead projectors: There’s Trump’s scribbled initial “D” for Donald, his stamp of approval on the invoices and memos behind a yearlong bounty of free cars, rent, home furnishings and other executive handouts.

Manhattan prosecutors have told jurors that because no one paid payroll taxes on these expensive plums, they are all part of a tax evasion scheme. Trump’s zig-zagging Sharpie signatures are indelible smears of shame that prove his complicity in this scheme, prosecutors will argue.

But Trump’s lawyers have pressed a two-pronged defense against the prosecution’s view that Trump and the company themselves are criminally responsible.

Defensive legs: Trump was in the dark. Even two business leaders, the prosecution’s own star witnesses, say it.

Defense language two: Trump’s signatures on dozens of checks, notes and invoices that are now evidence? All they prove is that Trump is a generous boss.

Let’s review how prosecutors can be expected to pick apart these two defenses next week.

The teaching scheme

Take the total of $359,000 in student checks that Trump or his son, Eric Trump, signed for former CFO Allen Weisselberg’s grandchildren.

These checks paid for the two children’s Manhattan private school education for five years; they are arguably the most extreme example of a fringe benefit that cannot remotely be explained away as exempt from payroll tax, not in the same way that other fringe benefits such as a company car or company apartment can be.

Instead, under the “generous Trump” defense, the checks, written from Trump’s personal account, are explained away as not a suspicious, tax-dodging perk at all, but a “gift.”

“I was in Trump’s office discussing some issues that day,” Weisselberg told jurors in 2012, testifying Nov. 17 under direct examination by Susan Hoffinger, the Manhattan district attorney’s chief of investigations and a lead prosecutor in the trial.

“And when I left his office, Don Jr. came in with some bills for his kids, for their school fees,” Weisselberg testified at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School. All the Trump children, including Trump’s son, Barron, went there.

Trump “jokingly” said: “I might as well pay your grandson, too,” Weisselberg told jurors of the cheerful, totally non-tax-fraudulent moment on the 26th floor of Trump Tower on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.

“I listened to him and kind of laughed,” Weisselberg recalled.

But Weisselberg also told jurors that after Trump cut him the first of five years of student checks, “I turned around and said, don’t forget, I’m going to pay you back for this.”

However, Weisselberg’s “gift of teaching” story has a flaw.

The CFO deducted the value of this and other perks from his salary for many years, in a scheme that he testified was his idea alone. (Under the scheme, prosecutors say, Weisselberg and others enjoyed their fringe benefits tax-free, while the company skimped on wages and payroll tax withholding.)

But as state Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan put it last week — and the prosecution is likely to argue — “You don’t repay a gift.”

Those Christmas bonuses

So, under the defense theory, Trump handed out a fortune in bonus checks every year like an absentee Santa Claus, in complete ignorance that the checks were part of tax fraud.

“Mr. Trump would like to hand them out?” Hoffinger, the chief prosecutor, asked Weisselberg about the Christmas bonuses last week.

“Or should they go out to employees along with Christmas cards like he wrote?”

“Correct,” Weisselberg told her.

But here is a problem. Call it the round number problem.

There were often, for Trump’s most senior executives, multiple Trump-signed checks stuffed into each Trump-signed holiday card.

That’s because, as part of the alleged corporate scheme, executives got their bonuses piecemeal in separate checks from several Trump Organization subsidiaries.

The subsidiaries — including Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Palm Beach golf resort, even Trump’s production company for “The Apprentice” — wrote off those expenses as if they were paying contractors, prosecutors have said.

The executives, meanwhile, pocketed the money as if they were being paid as contractors, an arrangement Weisselberg explained let them claim it as freelance income, some of which they could then stash in tax-free savings accounts only available to the self-employed. .

“Do those checks have round numbers on them? Forty-five thousand? Fifty thousand? Or a hundred thousand?” Hoffinger, the prosecutor, asked the former CFO in what could be seen as a “gotcha” moment.

“Correct,” Weisselberg replied.

Prosecutors are likely to tell jurors during closing arguments that because of the round numbers on the stacks of checks he signed each year, it must have been obvious to Trump that no payroll deductions had been taken out of that compensation, which the law requires.

Trump also had to know, prosecutors can argue, that those checks essentially paid his top executives in Manhattan for no-show work for his Florida resort and golf club, his Central Park ice rink and his television show.

“Was it always round numbers?” Hoffinger asked the former CFO.

“Those were round numbers,” Weisselberg agreed.

Trump the Forgiving

Another hurdle the defense has hoped to clear is explaining to jurors why Trump has continued to pay six- and even seven-figure salaries to Weisselberg and other executives involved in the pay scheme.

Especially Weisselberg, making $1.14 million in combined salary and bonus this year, essentially money for nothing as he is currently on paid leave. This despite a “betrayal” against the company so treacherous, it almost brought him to tears to describe.

There may also be some late holiday cheer for Weisselberg on top of the $1.14 million. In January, a month or so after the trial ends, Weisselberg will learn whether Eric Trump has increased his $500,000 bonus again.

Did Weisselberg have 500,000 reasons to tell jurors, as he did over three days on the witness stand, that Trump was kept in the dark about a rampant, 15-year, C-suite-wide payroll tax scheme?

Here, the defense can be expected to tell jurors that Trump is not only a generous boss, but also a forgiving one.

Trump Organization lawyers have been working to make that impression on jurors since opening statements five weeks ago.

A defense lawyer, Michael van der Veen, went so far as to call Weisselberg a “prodigal son” who hurt his family — the Trump family, which has employed him since 1973 — but was welcomed back into the fold with apparently few hard feelings and welcome gifts from a Trump-paid legal team and a nice wad of cash.

It remains to be seen whether jurors will believe that a few years after he pardoned his last Thanksgiving turkey as president, Trump pardoned Weisselberg for a “secret” pay scheme that could soon break his company’s bottom line and reputation — or if this “Trump is generous” idea will turn out to be just a turkey of a defense.

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