Trump trolls New York court en route to epic loss
His courtroom tantrum was a work — one that could cost him a lot of money.
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On Wednesday, after a series of increasingly inappropriate emails from Trump’s lawyers, Justice Arthur Engoron blocked the former president from delivering closing remarks in his New York civil fraud trial.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the entire exchange was part of an elaborate troll that allowed Trump to win a news cycle with an in-court outburst, but would only have harmed his case in the long run by serving as evidence of his total lack of repentance after years of passing off fraudulent financial documents. But as it turned out, Trump got his mic drop moment anyway.
Before we get to Trump’s Thursday courtroom outburst, let’s go back to January 3 and a routine scheduling email from Engoron’s law clerk. The evidentiary phase of the trial to determine the fate of Trump’s eponymous business wrapped last month, leaving only closing arguments scheduled for January 11. The clerk wanted to nail down the specifics with both sides.
In a perfectly normal, professional response, attorney Kevin Wallace said that he would speak for approximately an hour on behalf of the New York attorney general. Fair enough. But then Chris Kise, the lead attorney representing Donald Trump, replied that he and his co-counsels Alina Habba and Cliff Robert would address the court, and so would the defendant.
It was a deliberately informal message, devoid of a single capital letter — perhaps he donated them all to his boss! — and it had the intended effect.
Within hours, the AG’s office responded in a furious but still professional email, protesting that under New York law, “If a party appears by attorney such party may not act in person in the action except by consent of the court.” In plain English, you have a right to represent yourself in court. But if you do hire a lawyer, you can’t just jump in and pinch hit any time you feel like it.
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This is a standard rule across most jurisdictions to prevent parties from essentially testifying before the court and the jury without being forced to undergo cross-examination. Kise, the former solicitor general of Florida who successfully argued multiple cases before the US Supreme Court, knows this perfectly well. But the $3 million Trump’s Save America PAC paid Kise to leave his job at the white shoe law firm Foley & Lardner appears to have also secured his services as the court jester, and so he was apparently happy to feign ignorance of this basic rule.
As the prosecutors noted, Trump was entitled to testify in his own defense, and backed out at the last minute, shouting that he’d “VERY SUCCESSFULLY & CONCLUSIVELY TESTIFIED” on cross examination and had “NOTHING MORE TO SAY OTHER THAN THAT THIS IS A COMPLETE & TOTAL ELECTION INTERFERENCE (BIDEN CAMPAIGN!) WITCH HUNT.”
When he did testify during the prosecution’s case, he shouted at the judge, attempted to introduce evidence on the witness stand, and attacked the attorney general personally. And when he was forced to go under oath after publicly attacking court staff in defiance of the gag order, Justice Engoron found Trump’s testimony not credible and fined him $10,000.
“The Court has already found that Mr. Trump is prone to giving irrelevant speeches, lacks self-control, is evasive in responding to questions, and has repeatedly violated court orders for which he has been sanctioned,” prosecutors urged. “Allowing Mr. Trump to present closing argument will invite more speeches that will ‘unduly disrupt the proceedings.’”
Nonetheless, on January 5, Justice Engoron replied that he was “inclined to let everyone have his or her say,” and would grant the request if Trump would agree to “limit his subjects to what is permissible in a counsel's closing argument, that is, commentary on the relevant, material facts that are in evidence, and application of the relevant law to those facts.”
Four days later, Kise thanked the judge for his “response and proposal,” but complained that forcing Trump to play by the same rules as his own lawyers was “fraught with ambiguities” and directed the court to “advise as to whether you will permit president trump to speak at closing without the proposed limitations.”
Treating an order by a judge as a “proposal” is wildly inappropriate, and the email was clearly an attempt to provoke a denial by the court. But in the event, Engoron replied evenly that his parameters were “not subject to further debate.”
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“Take it or leave it,” he concluded. “Please let me know which by 4:00 pm today.” At 4:16 pm, having received no response, the judge indicated that he considered the matter closed. Kise replied a few minutes later that he “did not see your deadline” and breezily added that he’d get back to the court on the morning of January 10 — one day before the scheduled hearing. Later that night, citing the death of Trump’s mother-in-law, Kise requested a three-week delay of the entire hearing.
At the time of Kise’s email, Trump was in the midst of his nightly social media bender. And he did manage, even in his grief, to do a scheduled town hall with Fox’s Martha MacCallum and Brett Baier in Iowa on Wednesday night. But he did find time to tap out a short sendoff to “Melania’s great and beautiful mother” who had “just gone to a beautiful place in the sky.”
While offering his condolences, Justice Engoron denied the request to postpone the hearing, noting that “every appearance of Mr. Trump requires court officers, court clerks, administrators, security details, technical people, etc. to rearrange their schedules and to plan for the day.”
At this point, Kise resorted to open defiance, telling the court that, “Despite the fact that his Mother-in Law, who he was very close to, passed away late last night, President Trump will be speaking tomorrow.” Kise is well aware that this is a totally unacceptable way to address the court, which perhaps explains why he forgot himself and went back to using capital letters like a normal lawyer.
But even this flagrant misbehavior failed to produce an angry denial, with the court simply repeating that the former president would have to agree to the stated preconditions. And so Kise was finally forced to resort to the equivalent of two middle fingers to achieve the desired outcome.
That finally appears to have done the trick, with Justice Engoron replying testily, “Take it or leave it. Now or never. You have until noon, seven minutes from now. I WILL NOT GRANT ANY FURTHER EXTENSIONS.”
Having gotten what he wanted, Kise never replied. The court sent one final email noting that Trump “will not be speaking in court tomorrow,” and Trump paraded his trophy denial on social media.
“I WOULD LIKE TO PERSONALLY DO THE CLOSING ARGUMENT ON THE CIVIL TRIAL WHERE THE TRUMP HATING JUDGE AND ATTORNEY GENERAL ARE WORKING CLOSELY TOGETHER TO ‘SCREW ME,’ EVEN THOUGH I HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG,” Trump screamed on Truth Social Wednesday evening, attaching a conveniently cropped screenshot of the judge’s order.
But that was not the end of the matter. Trump showed up yesterday morning telling reporters that he hoped to address the judge.
And sure enough, with just six minutes left in the allotted time for the defense’s closing arguments, Kise requested that Trump be able to speak. This was clearly the prearranged cue for Trump’s final stunt.
The judge responded by asking if the defendant intended to abide by the court’s parameters, but without agreeing Trump launched into an a hominem attack on the prosecutors, New York law, and of course the judge himself.
“The financial statements were perfect, there were no witnesses against us, the banks got paid back … the banks are as happy as can be … there’s no fraud. What’s happened here sir, is a fraud on me,” Trump ranted, according to the Daily Beast. “This is a political witch hunt … we should receive damages for what we’ve gone through.”
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The court stared more or less impassively as Trump rambled on. When told the allotted time was up, Trump stormed out, content that he’d gotten his mic drop and won another news cycle. He then held a news conference and whined some more.
But his little stunt won’t help him with the court as it deliberates on the $370 million fine requested by the AG. If anything, it will be cited as evidence of Trump’s continuing refusal to take responsibility for his crimes and likelihood of repeating them if allowed to retain control of his real estate holdings. And if so, that will be some very expensive trolling.
That’s it for this week
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Have a great weekend.