By Jonah E. Bromwich, Ben Protess and Kate Christobek
Former President Donald Trump on Thursday delivered abrupt remarks in his own defense on the final day of his civil fraud trial in Manhattan, attacking the New York attorney general, who brought the case, insulting the judge to his face and declaring himself “an innocent man.”
Trump’s remarks were chaotic and emotional and lasted only minutes, during which he impugned the attorney general, Letitia James, a Democrat, saying she “hates Trump and uses Trump to get elected.”
He also took aim at the judge, Arthur Engoron, remarking, “You have your own agenda, I certainly understand that.” He added, as the judge stared stonily at him, “You can’t listen for more than one minute.”
Engoron instructed the former president’s lawyer to “control your client.” But Trump continued until the lunch break, at which point he stopped as suddenly as he had started.
The episode ushered in a dramatic conclusion to a monthslong trial that has enraged the former president and threatens his family business.
Trump’s lawyers had initially put forward his plan to speak in his own defense last week, but the judge imposed limits on his remarks. Engoron ruled that the former president could not deliver “a campaign speech” or attack the judge, his staff or James. Trump’s legal team objected, apparently scuttling his plan to speak, until one of his lawyers renewed the request at the end of the defense’s closing arguments Thursday and the judge permitted it.
But despite the judge’s objections and restrictions, the former president appeared to speak his mind exactly as he had planned, reiterating that he “did nothing wrong,” and arguing that the attorney general “should pay me” for what he’s gone through.
Trump’s lawyers kicked off the closing arguments Thursday with an attack on James, who brought the case accusing Trump of fraudulently inflating his net worth. Painting James as a rogue official, Trump’s legal team argued that she had no actual evidence buttressing her claims, only partisan talking points.
“This entire case is a manufactured claim to pursue a political agenda,” said Christopher Kise, one of Trump’s lawyers, as the former president looked on from the defense table. “It has always been press releases and posturing, but no proof at all,” adding that “not one witness came into this courtroom” to say that “there was fraud.”
Lawyers for James are now expected to counter that the former president violated state laws by exaggerating his net worth to obtain favorable loans and other financial benefits. The accusation strikes at the heart of Trump’s presentation of himself as a real estate visionary and has made James one of his chief antagonists.
James’ lawyers will highlight internal emails and the testimony of onetime Trump employees to assert that Trump’s actions warrant a severe punishment. James wants to extract a $370 million penalty, and to oust Trump from his own company and the wider world of New York real estate.
Trump’s lawyers on Thursday began to offer a competing narrative: that James fell woefully short of showing that the former president had orchestrated a fraud.
Kise argued that the documents at the heart of the case — Trump’s annual financial statements containing values of his properties — were essentially irrelevant to loans the former president received. He noted that Trump’s banks were hardly victims — they profited and extolled the former president as a reliable borrower during the trial.
“That’s unrebutted!” Kise repeatedly exclaimed of testimony favorable to the former president, adding that the bankers “rolled out the red carpet” for Trump.
Here’s what else you need to know:
— Early Thursday morning, authorities in Nassau County, New York, responded to a bomb threat at Engoron’s home. The threat came the morning after Trump again attacked Engoron on Truth Social, his social media site, saying that the judge and James were trying to “screw me.”
— The trial has been contentious, with Trump and his lawyers frequently attacking James, the judge, and the judge’s chief law clerk, Allison Greenfield. After the former president attacked Greenfield on social media, Engoron barred him from commenting on court staff, and fined him $15,000 for twice violating that limited gag order.
— Engoron, who will decide the verdict alone — there is no jury — has been persuaded by James’ arguments in the past. Even before the trial, he ruled in her favor, finding that Trump had committed fraud by inflating his assets and thus his net worth. The bulk of the trial concerned whether his conduct had violated other New York laws, as well as the potential punishments.
— Trump is not the only defendant. His adult sons, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., are also on trial, as is the Trump Organization itself. The Trump sons were also called to testify by James and distanced themselves from the drafting of the financial statements. In his own testimony, Trump attacked James as a “political hack” but acknowledged helping to assemble his financial statements, remarking, “I would look at them, I would see them, and I would maybe on occasion have some suggestions.”