Judge warns Trump over ‘rambling’ testimony at civil fraud trial
Former US president complains of unfair treatment
New York — Donald Trump complained of unfair treatment in defiant and rambling testimony on the witness box at the civil fraud trial about his New York business on Monday, prompting the judge to threaten to cut his testimony short.
Under questioning about the Trump Organization’s accounting practices, the former US president clearly aggravated judge Arthur Engoron, who is weighing whether to impose hundreds of millions of dollars in fines and other penalties that could hobble the real estate empire that vaulted Trump to prominence.
Engoron warned Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination in the 2024 election, that he might remove him from the witness box if he did not answer questions directly.
“Can you control your client?” Engoron asked Trump’s lawyer, Christopher Kise. “This is not a political rally. This is a courtroom.”
Trump often avoided direct answers, instead bragging about his properties and his wealth. He accused New York attorney-general Letitia James, an elected Democrat, of targeting him in a lawsuit to further her political career and accused Engoron of lowballing the value of his properties.
“The fraud is on behalf of the court,” Trump said.
Both men repeatedly raised their voices as the judge sought to prevent Trump from using the court to air his grievances.
“I’m not here to hear what he has to say. I’m here to hear him answer questions. Sit down already,” he told Alina Habba, another one of Trump’s lawyers.
Engoron is hearing evidence without a jury. The judge in September found Trump, his adult sons and 10 of his companies liable for fraud, describing in scathing terms how the defendants made up valuations. Engoron’s ruling could strip Trump's control of some of his best known properties, though that order is on hold during appeal.
Amid the fireworks, Trump acknowledged that his company did not provide accurate estimates of the value of apartment towers, golf courses and other assets. New York state lawyers said those values were pumped up to win better financing terms.
But Trump said many of them, such as his Mar-a-Lago estate and Doral golf course in Florida were undervalued. He acknowledged that his Trump Tower residence in New York and his Seven Springs estate north of the city were overvalued.
He said that should not matter because the estimates included language saying they might not be accurate and banks did not take them seriously.
“You’ve made it important, but it wasn’t,” Trump said of the estimates.
New York state lawyers said in their lawsuit that the estimates misled lenders and insurers, earning him more than $100m and exaggerating his wealth by $2bn.
Trump accused legal authorities of paying unduly close attention to his business after he won the 2016 presidential election.
“I’m sure the judge will rule against me because he always rules against me,” he said.
“This is a very unfair trial, very, very unfair and I hope the public is watching,” he added later.
James brushed aside Trump’s attacks ahead of his testimony.
“At the end of the day, the only thing that matters are the facts and the numbers. The numbers, my friends, don’t lie,” James said outside the court.
At one point when Trump was on the stand, Engoron asked Kise to take Trump to the back of the court and “explain the rules”.
“The former and again soon to be president of the US understands the rules,” Kise responded.
Unlike the four criminal cases Trump faces, this civil trial does not threaten to put him in prison as he mounts a comeback White House bid.
James is seeking $250m in fines, as well as restrictions that would prevent Trump and his sons Eric and Donald Jr from doing business in their home state.
Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen has testified that Trump directed him to doctor financial statements to boost his net worth. Evidence also shows that Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr, who ran the Trump Organization during their father’s 2017-2021 White House stint, tried to manipulate the assessed value of trophy properties including Mar-a-Lago.
In testimony last week, Trump’s sons said they were unfamiliar with the details of the valuation documents and blamed accountants for any errors.
Trump likewise sought to blame accountants, but also acknowledged that he was involved in valuation efforts. “I would maybe on occasion have some suggestions,” he said.
Asked who at the company was responsible for preventing fraud, the elder Trump said: “Um, everybody.”
Engoron has fined Trump $15,000 for twice violating a limited gag order that prevents him from criticising court staff. Trump’s lawyers have chafed at that order and indicated they might use it as the basis for an appeal, but Engoron expanded it on Friday to cover them as well.
Trump’s crowded legal calendar threatens to take him off the campaign trail for much of next year.
Republican voters do not seem to be bothered by his legal woes, as opinion polls show he holds a commanding lead in the party’s presidential nominating contest.
The trial was originally scheduled to run through to early December but could wrap up sooner as the state calls its final witnesses this week.
Trump’s daughter Ivanka is due to testify on Wednesday, though she is not a defendant in the case.
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