What Trump’s Civil Trial Tells Us About His Upcoming Criminal Cases

Courtroom 300 at the New York County Courthouse was quiet on Monday following Donald Trump’s last-minute decision not to testify again in his civil trial on charges of business fraud. The proceeding, which began in early October, is now approaching an end. Trump’s lawyers are wrapping up the defense’s case. They had been scheduled to call him as their final witness—one of them had said last week that he wanted to testify—but, on Sunday, Trump announced on his social-media site that he wouldn’t be showing up. “I have already testified to everything & have nothing more to say other than this is a complete & total election interference (Biden campaign!) witch hunt,” he wrote.

Of course, the Biden Administration has nothing to do with this case, which is being brought by New York’s attorney general, Letitia James. Last month, James’s lawyers called Trump as a witness for the prosecution. On the stand, he tried to dismiss the significance of his inflated statements of net worth, which are at the heart of the case. If he had testified again on Monday, it would have given him another chance to defend himself and take some more potshots at James and Judge Arthur F. Engoron, who is presiding over a bench case with no jury. But it would also have given the prosecutors a second crack at him, on cross-examination.

Evidently, Trump’s lawyers persuaded their client to bow out—and for good reason. As Lisa Rubin, a legal analyst for MSNBC, pointed out in a blog post on Monday, Trump “has never been a reliable or helpful witness in his own defense.” I was at the courthouse for his testimony last month, and, although his lawyers publicly praised his combative performance, it didn’t help their legal case. Trump admitted that he went over some of the figures in his company’s statements of net worth with Allen Weisselberg, the then chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, and suggested adjustments to some of them. He also conceded that some of the documents for the Trump Organization’s loans from Deutsche Bank required the company to maintain accurate financial statements. And he gave a misleading account of the laughable efforts to inflate the value of his triplex at Trump Tower.

Trump’s tendency to gab meant that minimizing his time on the witness stand was a no-brainer. It’s a strategy that his lawyers are likely to mimic when the four criminal cases against him go to trial. Two of these cases—one involving a federal indictment in Washington, D.C., another at the state level in Fulton County, Georgia—arose from Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election result. There is another federal case, in Florida, which involves charges that he mishandled classified information and attempted to obstruct justice. In the fourth case, brought by the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, Trump faces criminal charges of falsifying business records arising from the surreptitious payoff he made in 2016 to the adult-film star Stormy Daniels. Given the potential ramifications of these cases, which include Trump being found guilty and sentenced to prison, the New York civil case has always been something of an afterthought. But even though this case is largely about money—the prosecutors are asking the court to ban Trump and his sons from doing business in New York and to issue a fine of up to two hundred and fifty million dollars—it has certainly got under Trump’s skin and provided some suggestions of how the criminal trials are likely to play out.

Trump and his lawyers have followed a strategy that involves a division of labor. In the courtroom, the Trump team, led by Chris Kise, a former Florida solicitor general, has had the resources and wherewithal to launch a lengthy and expansive legal defense. Simultaneously, and mostly from outside the courtroom, Trump has mounted a sustained campaign of vilification against the prosecutors, the courts, the Biden Administration, and the very idea that he should be held accountable for anything.

Confronted with a mountain of documentary evidence relating to the bogus statements of net worth, Trump’s lawyers have largely avoided that incriminating record and sought to undermine the legal basis of the attorney general’s case. To this end, they have called on a number of expert witnesses. Last Thursday, Eli Bartov, a professor of accounting at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, told the court, “I’ve never seen a statement that provides so much detail and is so transparent as these statements.” On Friday, Bartov revealed that he had been paid nearly nine hundred thousand dollars for testifying, with some of the money coming from the Trump Organization and the rest from Trump’s Save America PAC. With MAGA campaign donors footing the bill, Trump can apparently afford the best testimony money can buy.

The Trump lawyers have also appealed some of Engoron’s rulings, including one in which he ruled, pretrial, that in preparing the bogus financial statements and submitting them to various financial institutions, Trump and the Trump Organization violated a New York fraud statute. (The case is now largely about putative penalties and efforts by the Trump lawyers to create grounds for an appeal.) More recently, Kise and his colleagues have asked a higher court to overturn a gag order that Engoron issued, which prohibited Trump from publicly commenting on the court staff, including one of the judge’s law clerks, whom Trump had attacked personally in a social-media post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *