In 1990, Ronald Reagan testified at the trial of John Poindexter, his former national security adviser caught up in the Iran-Contra affair. Two years out of office, questioned for eight hours, the former US president memorably said “I don’t recall” or “I can’t remember” no less than 88 times.
This week, the two adult sons of one of Reagan’s Republican successors took the stand in New York, for testimony in a $250m civil fraud trial in which the judge has already determined the family’s guilt and now seeks to determine their penalty.
On the campaign trail, Donald Trump often pays tribute to Reagan. In the courtroom, Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump tipped the hat to the master of repetitive deflection under legal examination.
On Wednesday, Trump Jr answered several questions in the Reagan manner. Asked, for example, about the Donald J Trump Revocable Trust, and if his father was still one of its trustees, he simply said: “I don’t recall.”
On Thursday, Trump Jr was asked about a $2m severance package given earlier this year to Allen Weisselberg, the longtime Trump Organization chief financial officer who went to jail for tax fraud. He could not recall much, he said.
Eric Trump followed his older brother on to the stand. Asked if he remembered a 2013 phone call about a statement of financial condition – documents at the heart of the case against the Trumps, prosecutors alleging they routinely made inaccurate statements in search of financial advantage – his answer was longer than his brother’s. But it still contained the magic words.
“I don’t believe I ever saw or worked on the statement of financial condition,” Eric Trump said. “I don’t believe I had any knowledge of it. I think I was 26 years old. I don’t recall – I was not aware of it, I never worked on it, and I didn’t know about it until this case came into fruition.”
He was asked about an email in which a now former Trump lawyer said she spoke to him about an appraisal for Seven Springs, a family estate in New York that has been at the heart of reporting about Trump’s tax affairs.
The appraiser valued the estate at $50m. Eric Trump said he did not share that valuation with Jeff McConney, controller of the Trump Organization and a co-defendant, because “I would have never thought to because I didn’t work on this document”.
Eventually, the Trumps valued Seven Springs at $291m.
Regarding Briarcliff Manor, a New York golf course, an email was read out in which a Trump Organization lawyer said: “I spoke to Eric and he is aware that the more supportable value at this point is around $45m.” In Trump Organization financial statements from 2013 to 2018, the course was valued $58m higher.
In court, Eric Trump said: “I really hadn’t been involved in the appraisal of the property … I don’t recall [the appraiser] at all. I don’t think I was the main person involved. I don’t focus on appraisals, that’s not the focus of my day.”
Even when confronted with evidence of his involvement in such matters, Trump would only concede: “It appears that way.”
Observers were not impressed. Andrew Weissmann, a former federal prosecutor who worked for the special counsel Robert Mueller on the investigation of Russian election interference and links between Trump and Moscow, said: “Don Jr and Eric Trump’s ‘defense’ … appears so far to be that they were derelict in their duties as executives and trustees.”
The main show is yet to come. Donald Trump and his oldest daughter, Ivanka Trump, are due to testify next. But even if the Trump boys were just a warm-up, they put on a masterclass of reliably unreliable recall.
Asked if he had been involved in preparing an allegedly manipulated statement about a golf course deal, Eric said: “Not that I recall.”
Then, he produced the mot juste: “I don’t know what I knew at the time.”