These 'three little words' could determine the fate of the entire Trump Organization: NYT
Donald Trump, Allen Weisselberg and Donald Trump Jr. (AFP)

The criminal tax fraud trial of Donald Trump's family business will come down to a jury's understanding of three prosaic words, according to a new analysis by the New York Times.

The Trump Organization is accused of giving off-the-books perks to company executives who then failed to pay taxes on them, but prosecutors must prove that chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, who has already pleaded guilty and testified at trial, committed the felonies "in behalf of" the family-owned business, reported the Times.

“This statute has been on the books for a long time, and to my knowledge this really hasn’t been argued to the extent it’s being argued now,” said Judge Juan Merchan, who must decide how to define those words for jurors.

The company's lawyers have argued prosecutors must prove that Weisselberg intended to benefit Trump Organization when he set up the scheme, to which Merchan seems inclined to agree, but he said prosecutors must show there was "some intent to benefit the corporation," although he doesn't believe they must prove that was his primary goal, as defense attorneys had wanted.

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Prosecutors say they've presented "ample evidence" that Weisselberg intended to benefit the Trump Organization, and that the company did benefit, after the longtime CFO testified the scheme saved the company money in taxes and from his overall compensation, after he subtracted the cost of some benefits from his salary.

Defense attorneys have argued that New York's statute was so vague the case should be thrown out, but one veteran prosecutor who oversaw white-collar criminal cases said the hair-splitting over the three words "in behalf of" rarely arose because actions of high-ranking corporate officials almost always benefit their company.

“It’s not an issue that I recall seeing before,” said Adam S. Kaufmann, a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney’s office for nearly two decades.