Donald Trump took charge of his own defence in a civil fraud trial that threatens to level his business empire, telling a New York judge on Thursday that he had been victimised by a politically motivated case and that he should be paid damages for his suffering.
“They want to make sure I don’t win again. This is partially electoral interference,” Trump said in a brief courtroom speech, adding: “I did nothing wrong. They should pay me for what we’ve had to go through.”
His surprise, five-minute intervention came just before the lunch break on the final day of a civil fraud trial that began in early October. It was the latest instance in which the former president deployed his own forceful theatrics to repurpose a court appointment as a campaign event.
Trump’s lawyer, Christopher Kise, had previously petitioned for his client to deliver a portion of his own closing argument. Yet Trump appeared to abandon the idea after Judge Arthur Engoron insisted that any remarks bear directly on the evidence.
With Trump sitting behind him at the defence table, Kise delivered closing remarks on Thursday morning, telling the court that New York state attorney-general Letitia James’s case relied on “press releases and posturing” rather than evidence of wrongdoing. Those efforts, he said, could put a man who has been a part “of the fabric of the commercial real estate industry in this city and state for 50 years essentially out of business”.
“For what?” Kise added. “Nothing.”
After two fellow counsellors delivered their summations, Kise asked Engoron that Trump be permitted to speak. The judge expressed his displeasure that the request had been sprung on him. Then, as he began to restate his condition that Trump stay “inside the lines”, the former president launched into a fast-talking tirade.
“Well, your honour, I think this case goes outside the lines,” he replied, still sitting at the defence table. “I’m an innocent man. I’ve been persecuted by someone running for office. I think I have to go outside the lanes.”
As Trump rumbled on, Engoron protested: “Mr Kise, please control your client.”
The trial stems from a lawsuit claiming that Trump committed fraud by overstating the value of his properties — from a Manhattan penthouse to golf courses and office buildings — by more than $2bn. In doing so, he was able to secure bank loans and insurance on advantageous terms, James alleged.
Engoron has already concluded that Trump committed fraud. The trial is to determine the penalties, which are potentially dire. James is seeking $370mn in damages, as well as sanctions that would prevent Trump and his adult sons from doing business in New York.
“Before this trial began, the court ruled in our favour and found that Donald Trump engaged in years of significant financial fraud and unjustly enriched himself and his family,” James said in a statement on Thursday. “Throughout this trial, we revealed the full scale and scope of that fraud.”
Trump’s lawyers have indicated they are almost certain to appeal against the final judgment.
In a nearly two-hour summation, Kise argued that valuing real estate was an inexact science, given to wide latitude and interpretation. Trump had relied on “multimillion-dollar accountants”, Kise said, and his chief lender, Deutsche Bank, had performed its own due diligence. The bank, he noted, regarded Trump as a “whale” of a client and had never complained or suffered harm.
“There’s no party complaining or alleging any fraud,” Kise said, calling the potential $370mn fine “absurdly disproportionate”.
But, in a potentially troubling sign for the defence, Engoron disputed the notion that a third party had to suffer harm for a defendant to be forced to pay back ill-gotten gains.
“There has to be evidence [of fraud], but there does not have to be evidence of harm to any third party,” the judge said, to Kise’s apparent consternation.
The civil trial is but one of many legal fronts on which Trump is battling. He also faces criminal charges in Georgia and Washington related to his conduct after the 2020 election that threaten possible prison time. Yet the New York trial has been unique in that it has featured turns in the witness chair by the former president and three of his adult children, Donald Jr, Eric and Ivanka.
While their styles differed — from a testy Eric to a sardonic Donald Jr — the Trumps were uniform in insisting that they had followed the advice of their accountants. In any case, the Trump Organization had repaid all of the loans in question in full and on time. As such, no one had been victimised, they contended.
“All the banks got all their money back. They were great loans. They’re as happy as can be,” Trump said on Thursday. He dismissed a $200mn overvaluation of his penthouse as an honest mistake that was insignificant in the context of his larger fortune.
This was not Trump’s first courtroom speech. In a brief appearance on the witness stand in early November, he alternated between aggrieved and full of rage. “It’s a terrible thing you’ve done. You know nothing about me” he fumed at Engoron at one point, wagging his finger. The judge, in turn, pleaded with Trump’s attorneys to restrain him.
It is Trump’s second courtroom appearance in a week, after he attended a hearing before a federal appeals court in Washington over whether he can use presidential immunity to dismiss a federal criminal case over the 2020 election.
His legal schedule is heating up just as the Republican presidential primary race kicks off next week with the Iowa caucus.
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