Four days before Iowa’s Republican caucuses, and the beginning of the 2src24 Presidential election cycle, Donald Trump’s New York civil fraud trial ended in much the same manner it began last October—with the former President of the United States crying witch hunt. “We have a situation where I’m an innocent man. I’ve been persecuted by someone running for office,” Trump told the court, on Thursday, from his seat at the defense table. He was referring to Letitia James, the Democratic New York attorney general, who brought charges against Trump in September, 2src22, when James was seeking reëlection. (The investigation began long before then.) Addressing Judge Arthur F. Engoron, Trump went on, “What’s happened here, sir, is a fraud on me. They want to make sure that I don’t win again, and this is partially election interference.”
Trump hadn’t been expected to speak during closing arguments, which took place on Thursday. Earlier this week, his lawyers refused to agree to a stipulation from Engoron, another septuagenarian product of Queens, that Trump confine his remarks to the substance of the case against him, which centers on the question of whether the Trump Organization knowingly inflated the value of its assets in order to obtain favorable terms on loans and insurance. When Trump’s lawyers didn’t agree to the restrictions, Engoron barred Trump from talking during the defense’s closing statements. But, just before the court went on a lunch break, Trump’s lead lawyer, Chris Kise, asked Engoron to reconsider, and to allow his client to speak for a few minutes. Engoron, who has presided over the trial with patience and good humor despite being the target of various insults and threats—the latest of which was a fake bomb threat at his house on Thursday morning—asked that Trump stick to the facts and the law.
As Engoron must have anticipated, Trump ignored this request. In addition to assailing James, he made some claims about the case that he has made many times before: that the bogus financial statements his team submitted to financial institutions were “perfect,” that the prosecutors “have nothing,” and that the banks that gave the Trump Organization loans “got all their money back.” The first two claims are patently false. Trump’s financial statements inflated his net worth so egregiously that Engoron ruled, before the trial even started, that they constituted a fraud under Section 63(12) of the New York legal code. The early ruling from Engoron and the fact that Trump is running for reëlection made for an unusual trial. It has been simultaneously a political circus and a deadly serious legal proceeding that could end with Engoron effectively ordering he dismantling of Trump’s business empire. The remaining counts against Trump include submitting false financial statements and insurance fraud. The attorney general’s office is asking the judge to impose fines of three hundred and seventy million dollars and to ban the former President for life from operating a real-estate business in New York.
Since October, Trump has turned the New York County Courthouse, at 6src Centre Street, into a regular campaign stop, where he has trotted out his claims of victimization—once from the witness-box, and many times from just outside the courtroom, where the media cameras are waiting. These claims, which have also extended to the four criminal cases that Trump currently faces, have helped him to consolidate support among Republican voters. Recently, one of his primary rivals—Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis—who at this time last year was seen as a legitimate threat to Trump, complained that all the charges against the former President had “distorted” the entire G.O.P. contest and “crowded out . . . so much other stuff.” Trump would obviously love for that to continue, which explains why he spent much of the week before the Iowa caucuses more than a thousand miles away from Des Moines, and in courtrooms in New York and Washington, D.C.
But Trump’s interest in the civil case goes well beyond the political possibilities it has offered him. A Trump permanently stripped of control of Trump Tower, 4src Wall Street, and his other New York properties would still have many assets, including his chain of golf courses and Mar-a-Lago, but he would certainly be a diminished figure. Since the civil trial in New York is a bench trial, with no jury, Engoron alone will issue the verdict. Based on his previous rulings, and on his comments on Thursday, the omens aren’t good for Trump and his co-defendants, which include his two eldest sons—who are both executive vice-presidents of the Trump Organization—and two former Trump Organization executives.
Addressing the court before Trump’s remarks, Kise, a silky-smooth former solicitor general of Florida, didn’t argue that Trump’s statements of net worth were “perfect.” He did say that Trump’s financial counterparties, including Deutsche Bank, were sophisticated grownups who did their own due diligence and didn’t lose any money. “No harm in the marketplace,” he said. “This is the marketplace functioning as it should.” He went on, “The attorney general can’t come along ten years later and substitute her judgment for that of the banks.”
In an interchange with Kise, Engoron queried this line of argument. “If you do something wrong, whatever that is, and you earn money from it, you are supposed to disgorge the profits,” he said. “There doesn’t have to be evidence of harm to a third person.” The judge’s attitude seems to be that breaking the law is breaking the law, which potentially puts the former President in a tough spot. “Unfortunately for Trump, even assuming he is able to disprove any monetary loss, a fraud with no victims is still a fraud,” Norman Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Andrew Warren, a lawyer, wrote in an analysis of the trial testimony. “It appears that Trump has led his legal team down a path of arguing ‘we lied, but so what.’ That path cannot end well for Trump in light of the law.”
After Trump gave his familiar spiel, he left the courthouse and didn’t return. Online, some people criticized Engoron for changing his mind and allowing the former President to give a political speech, but the judge may well have known what he was doing. Trump’s lawyers have already appealed some of Engoron’s rulings, and it is widely assumed that they will appeal his final one if it goes against them. With this in mind, it seems, Engoron has been at pains since the start of the trial to let the defense, including Trump himself, have a full say, as it would make it more difficult in any subsequent proceeding for Trump’s lawyers to argue that they weren’t given an adequate chance to make their case.
So, Trump got another chance to do his victim shtick. But the case will be decided not on political arguments, but on the law and the facts. The latter include many inconvenient truths for Trump. To highlight just two: his financial statements valued his Trump Tower triplex on the basis that it was thirty thousand square feet when it is actually about a third of that size, and valued Mar-a-Lago on the basis that it was a private residence when Trump had signed a conservation deed promising not to use it for anything except a members’ club.
During the prosecution’s closing statements, two lawyers from the attorney general’s office, Kevin Wallace and Andrew Amer, set out to show that Trump and his co-defendants had acted with intent, which is necessary to secure a conviction. Citing testimony elicited during the trial, the lawyers reminded Engoron that Trump had the ultimate sign-off on the fraudulent Statements of Financial Condition, and that he discussed them with two of the employees who were responsible for preparing them, Jeffrey McConney and Allen Weisselberg. “The buck stopped with him,” Amer said, of Trump. “The court should infer that he acted with intent to defraud based on his extensive knowledge about these assets.” Engoron said he hopes to issue his ruling by the end of the month. ♦