The former president’s testimony in a New York courtroom was a sad spectacle for the country.
In another historic first for a former president, Donald J. Trump testified for five hours yesterday in the trial of the civil fraud claims brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James against him, his two sons, the Trump Organization, and other related defendants. Although his testimony probably shifted little for the state’s case against him, it was a sad spectacle for the rule of law and the sanctity of the judicial system in America. Trump reportedly yelled at Judge Arthur Engoron for several minutes in open court, declaring: “It’s a terrible thing you’ve done. You know nothing about me. You believe this political hack back there,” referring to James.
Likewise disturbing was the conduct of Trump’s counsel, including Alina Habba, who said of the judge—who has already sanctioned her for attorney misconduct—“What I’m seeing is such a demise of the American judicial system. They’ve got nothing but their politics” and “This is a judge who clearly has an issue with facts that are not good for the case.” Christopher Kise, another of Trump’s sanctioned attorneys (who is also lead counsel for Trump in the Mar-a-Lago federal criminal case involving his mishandling of classified documents), praised Trump’s testimony as “great” and “brilliant,” clearly playing to his client’s need for flattery. Judge Engoron tried to temper Trump’s rambling responses, ultimately imploring Kise: “Mr. Kise—can you control your client? This is not a political rally. This is a courtroom.”
For Trump, that is a distinction without a difference. When Trump’s lawyers filed 60-plus failed lawsuits challenging elusive election fraud in 2020, they changed the nature of the legal game—possibly forever. Unlike in the political sphere, where falsehoods flourish and the public can pass judgment however it likes, judges and juries are bound by verifiable facts and by laws, and lower courts’ decisions must withstand review by appellate judges. Lawyers have ethical obligations to the bar and under court rules to make only arguments that have legal and factual validity, or else face sanctions. Beyond the threat of official rebukes, there exists an expectation of decorum and respect for the process that undergirds the profession itself—a “norm” that is now going by the wayside along with countless others that the Trump presidency undid.
In this case, Trump has already lost multiple appeals of Engoron’s rulings, but that has not stopped his lawyers from regurgitating the same losing arguments, in the judge’s words, “to the point of intentional and blatant disregard of controlling authority and law of the case.” Those arguments included the claim, lodged again by Trump in his testimony yesterday, that written disclaimers in the relevant contracts absolved Trump and his companies of any legal liability for false valuations. He resoundingly lost that argument, in the trial court and on appeal, and it is patently improper for his counsel to keep pushing it.
Trump’s shaky defense reflects an admission that he already lost a big portion of the case in September when the judge ruled against him on the first count in the complaint—the question of whether Trump and the other defendants engaged in fraud under New York’s Executive Law Section 63(12)—ordering the dissolution of many of his businesses. What’s left for the trial now are the questions of how much money Trump could owe (James wants $250,000,000), and whether he can ever do business or apply for loans in New York again. If the judge rules against him on the remaining counts and orders disgorgement of millions in illegal profits, it could force Trump to sell a slew of high-profile properties that dot Manhattan and elsewhere.
It is therefore unsurprising that, earlier this week, Trump on his Truth Social platform called Engoron “grossly incompetent” and “a partisan political hack who totally disregards the Court of Appeals decisions against him.” He continued:
The New York State legal system has broken down completely, and everybody who is watching this Witch Hunt so agrees. Hopefully, that will soon change. This CRAZED Judge ruled against me before the Trial even started, and said Mar-a-Lago is worth only $18,000,000. Other properties, likewise. This is a Biden Election Interference Scam! There were No Crimes & No Victims, and there is NO JURY ALLOWED. This Radical Trump Hater Must Be Taken Off This Case!
To see a judge be treated with this kind of disrespect by anyone, let alone a former president and the presumptive Republican nominee for president—with his lawyers standing by him—is to witness an assault on the judicial system and the rule of law itself, with cancerous implications for the legitimacy of U.S. courts writ large. This case is about Trump’s personal business empire—not his time as president or his candidacy in the 2024 presidential race—yet his defense appears to center on how special he is. “This is a situation where you have on the stand a candidate for president of the United States. Being here takes away from that effort,” Kise said. “I think it’s fair for the court to hear his position. I certainly think it’s fair for the American people to hear his position.”
That’s exactly what Trump is hoping for.