The judge in Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial despairingly pressed the ex-president’s lawyer: “I beseech you to control him if you can.”
Judge Arthur Engoron’s plea reflected his frustration at an incorrigible witness who boasted Monday about his piles of cash, aimed scathing political attacks and spouted uniquely illogical logic.
But Engoron, who is presiding over the New York trial, also put his finger on a deeper question that will define a singular political figure’s place in history.
And the answer, as always, was no, Trump cannot be controlled.
No mere lawyer could impose the kind of discipline that two-and-a-half centuries of constitutional checks and balances could not provide during Trump’s time in office or since. And after threatening to dismiss the ex-president from the witness stand, Engoron opted to let the Trump storm rage in the apparent hope that it would blow itself out — though history has shown it never does.
Trump’s combative defense against claims he inflated his wealth to rip off banks, insurance firms and New York state, served as a troubling preview of a 2024 election season that is likely to become ensnared with his massive legal peril. But it also revealed insights into Trump’s relentless refusal to give an inch to his enemies and showed why voters who despise East Coast authority figures and liberal societal codes adore him.
His testimony offered warnings to lawyers who will seek to puncture his self-created bubble of alternative realities with facts and evidence — and showed how he might try to charm and confuse jurors in his coming criminal trials.
As he climbed into the witness box and lifted his hand and swore to tell the truth — an almost ironic act given his record of falsehoods — Trump obliterated yet another convention. Ex-presidents in America don’t typically get called to explain their actions in court. And Monday’s four-hour dive into the Trump Organization’s financial records was just a warm up for subsequent criminal courtroom dramas that could mean the Republican Party will nominate a convicted felon for president. Trump denies wrongdoing in each and every case against him.
Trump shows what he will do to save himself
Trump in a blue suit, tie and shirt instead of his campaign livery of dark suit, white shirt and improbably long red tie, left no doubt that if tearing down legal and political systems is what it will take to save him, he won’t hesitate.
“It is election interference because you want to keep me in this courthouse all day long,” Trump told prosecutors working for New York Attorney General Letitia James, accusing her of trying to base a run for governor on an attempt to destroy his business. As he often does, the ex-president was turning facts upside down — it is he who is politicizing the justice system in his own bid for a return to power.
And before he faces judgment, Trump is seeking to discredit the organs of accountability that will seal his fate. “It is an extremely hostile judge,” Trump added, raising his hand to point at Engoron, who sat beside and just above the witness box on the bench.
The ex-president’s day was a microcosm of a riotous life as a real estate magnate, New York City icon, showbiz reality star and demagogic political candidate and US president. He obstructed, exaggerated, spouted insults, brassily trampled courtroom protocol and substituted partisan narratives for the yes and no answers that the judge demanded. Yet Trump also expertly used the outraged stream of consciousness and linguistic dexterity that turns his interrogators in the law, or the media, in knots.
There were even flashes of humor, hinting at one of the key ingredients of the political method that has seduced millions of Americans. Asked, for instance, whether he had built houses on a golf course in Scotland, Trump conceded that he had not but added waspishly: “I have a castle.” And there were oodles of quintessential Trump self-promotion. He boasted that his Florida Mar-a-Lago resort was “a very successful club,” said he’d built the “best building on the West Coast” and claimed dubiously that his 18 holes in Aberdeen was the “greatest golf course ever built.”
At one point, Trump mused: “I’ve had a lot of cash for a long time.”
Trump’s supporters could not watch him since the trial was not televised but they would have recognized the bulldozer on the witness stand and the blow-it-all-up persona that made a twice-impeached, four times indicted ex-president who left Washington in disgrace nearly three years ago again the Republican front-runner.
It became clear long before Trump left court complaining of a “scam” that his legal strategy was indistinguishable from his familiar political one: admit nothing and brand any criticism as proof of a vast, unfair plot against him. The goal was transparent: leverage the latest bid to call him to account into a campaign fueled by a martyr complex that can win back presidential powers to drive away his legal woes.
“People are sick and tired of what’s happening. I think it’s a very sad day for America,” Trump said at the end, before noting The New York Times polls showing him leading President Joe Biden in key swing states — a tactic his lawyer Chris Kise also used to imply the “soon to be” next president wasn’t being shown sufficient respect.
Trump’s dignity is ruffled
Yet Monday was also a rude awakening for Trump.
Retired commanders-in-chief are usually surrounded by a force field of deference, with their secret service detachments and forever title of “Mr. President.” Trump has long posed as the alpha male and his entire business and political creed — in person and on social media – is based on intimidation. But it must have been a long time since anyone had shushed Trump like Engoron, cutting him off ahead of another meander by saying, “No, no, you answered the question.”
There was no “Mr. President” from the attorney general’s lawyers or the judge. The witness was simply “Mr. Trump.” He sat on a leather chair, alone in the wood paneled witness box, his hands clasped in his lap.
But the trial quickly became a test of wills between Trump and Engoron over who controlled the court. After one trip by Trump down a rabbit hole, the judge asked the lawyers if they had asked for an “essay” on brand value. Frustrated with partisan asides, Engoron warned that “this is not a political rally, this is a courtroom.” And the judge bristled at the ex-president’s complaint that he always ruled against him. Adopting a tone typical of Trump subordinates, Kise argued with the judge’s admonitions against speeches and lauded the ex-president’s “brilliant” replies.
Later, the judge, perhaps trying to avoid offering grist for a potential appeal said he’d let the ex-president ramble. But by the end of the day, Engoron’s resolve frayed: “It feels like a broken record,” he said of Trump’s answers. The ex-president snapped back: “He keeps asking me the same question over and over.” Engoron will however get the last word. He has already ruled that Trump, his two adult sons and the Trump Organization are liable for fraud in inflating his wealth in return for advantageous deals with banks and insurance firms. The trial will resolve related claims and decide how much restitution is due and whether he will be barred from doing business in New York.
How Trump defended himself
It was hard to tell whether Trump had helped or hurt himself. He did appear to disrupt the smooth running of the trial. But – as he complained at one point – there is no jury, and Engoron will be left to adjudicate the trial.
Trump’s defense broadly rested on three planks. He denied accusations that he’d inflated his properties, insisting conversely that he’d undervalued most of them by not including ill-defined millions of dollars implied by his “brand” and its potential. He claimed that he was protected by a disclaimer clause in financial documents, which meant that banks and insurance firms had to do their own due diligence. And he repeatedly insisted that “there were no victims,” so there can have been no crime.
This blanket deniability and belief in his own imperviousness echoed Trump’s false proclamations in office that the Constitution granted him almost absolute powers. Or that the phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that earned him his first impeachment or his January 6, 2021 speech before the Capitol insurrection were “perfect.”
Trump also offered an intriguing glimpse into his mindset as a businessman that makes it easier to understand his false insistence that he actually won the 2020 election when he clearly lost it.
“I can look at a building and tell you what they are worth,” he said, creating the impression that the true valuation of a property was something he could just pluck out of the air, with little regard for all the complex financial instruments that normally add up to an investment’s true value. This desire to make a reality just what he wants it to be has long defined Trump’s political approach. And he seems to adopt a similar tactic in looking at an election and deciding who won regardless of the actual evidence about who got the most votes.
This question of whether Trump actually believes what he says will be key to two election interference trials — one in federal court in Washington and one in Georgia where prosecutors must show he intended to break the law. Trump insists that he was convinced he won in 2020, despite all evidence to the contrary. And in his virtual reality world, he may believe it or may at least be able to convince a jury he did.
But the most sobering takeaway of Trump’s day in court on Monday was that while the law might succeed in enforcing accountability where constitutional and political constraints failed, there is no sign yet that anyone or anything can bring the potential 47th president of the United States under control.
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