Former President Donald Trump frequently attacks the multiple legal cases against him as political attempts to impede his presidential campaign. But in many ways, it’s Mr. Trump who appears to be bringing the campaign into the courtroom – to possibly advantageous effect.
On Monday, Mr. Trump took the stand in his civil fraud trial in New York and gave expansive answers in which he portrayed himself as a victim, Attorney General Letitia James as a political hack, and the judge overseeing the trial as biased.
That judge, Arthur Engoron, at one point exasperatedly asked one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers to control his client and get the former president to answer the specific questions about the case.
“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,” said Judge Engoron.
“This is not a political rally,” he added.
The former president later attacked the judge for his comments, posting a picture of him on his social media site Truth Social, with the quote, “No, I’m not here to hear what [President Trump] has to say.”
Attorney General James is asking for $250 million in damages and a prohibition on the Trump family doing business in the state. She charges that Mr. Trump, his adult sons, and other co-defendants committed fraud by exaggerating the value of real estate assets on financial statements to get better terms on loans and insurance.
Prior to the beginning of testimony, Judge Engoron ruled that evidence shows the Trumps were indeed guilty of “persistent and repeated” fraud. He will rule on damages, which could include the Trumps losing control of signature properties, after the trial concludes.
During a long day of testimony on Monday, Mr. Trump was at times combative. At several points he seemed to be speaking past the judge and lawyers in the courtroom to a larger public beyond.
“It’s a terrible thing you’ve done,” Mr. Trump said to Judge Engoron at one point. “You know nothing about me.”
Later he took a paper from his pocket and asked to enter it into the record. Judge Engoron stopped him.
“This is a very unfair trial. ... I hope the public is watching,” Mr. Trump said.
A number of times, the former president raised what he called the “worthless” clause in his own defense. This referred to disclaimers on many of his financial statements that stated banks and other recipients needed to do their own work to verify provided numbers.
Judge Engoron already discredited the use of this defense in his pretrial ruling, saying the disclaimers don’t contain the word “worthless,” do not rise to the level of an enforceable clause, and cannot be used to insulate against intentional fraud.
Mr. Trump also said that many of the financial statements were the work of outside accounting firms – a defense invoked by his sons Donald Jr. and Eric as well.
The former president said he would sometimes look over the statements with his advisers and make “suggestions” as to the value of some properties.
Overall, Mr. Trump’s testimony did not appear to reflect a purely legal strategy, tweeted former federal prosecutor Renato Mariotti. It took into account public relations – and politics – as well.
“Trump wants to convince his followers the trial is rigged and that he’s a victim, not a fraudster,” Mr. Mariotti wrote on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter.
After the proceedings were over, Attorney General James said that despite the former president’s “distractions” in his testimony, “the numbers don’t lie.”
Mr. Trump’s approach to his civil trial and upcoming criminal trials does not appear to have hurt him in the polls. If anything, his political position has strengthened: A recent New York Times/Siena poll finds the former president ahead of President Joe Biden in five of six key battleground states.
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