Donald Trump returns to court for summations in civil fraud trial after judge receives bomb threat

AP , Thursday 11 Jan 2024

Barred from giving his own closing argument, Donald Trump took in his lawyer’s summation as a glowering, arms-folded spectator at the end of his New York civil fraud trial Thursday, hours after authorities responded to a bomb threat at the judge’s house.

Donald Trump
Former US President Donald Trump sits in New York State Supreme Court during the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization, in New York City on January 11, 2024. AFP

 

Police checked out the threat at Judge Arthur Engoron’s Long Island home, which came a day after he denied the former president’s extraordinary request to deliver his own courtroom close, officials said. The proceedings were not delayed.

Trump, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, has repeatedly disparaged Engoron, accusing him in a social media post Wednesday night of working closely with the New York attorney general “to screw me.”

“At this moment the judge is not letting me make the summation because I’ll bring up things he doesn’t want to hear," Trump said as he walked into the courtroom, characterizing the decision as “political interference.”

Trump said he was still hoping he would be allowed to speak, but his lawyer did not raise the issue before launching into his own closing argument.

“Forty-four days of trial — not one witness came into this courtroom, your honor, and said there was fraud,” Trump lawyer Christopher Kise said, contending his client “should get a medal” for his business acumen instead of punishment he deemed the “corporate death penalty.”

At 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, hours before the trial’s final day was to begin, Nassau County police said they responded to a “swatting incident” at Engoron’s Great Neck home. Nothing amiss was found at the location, officials said.

The false report came days after a fake emergency call reporting a shooting at the home of the judge in Trump’s Washington, D.C. criminal case. The incidents are among a recent spate of similar false reports at the homes of public officials.

Taking the bench a few minutes late, Engoron made no mention of the incident at his home.

On Wednesday, Engoron had nixed an unusual plan by Trump to deliver his own closing remarks in the courtroom, in addition to summations from his legal team, after lawyers for the former president would not agree to the judge’s demand that he stick to “relevant” matters."

That left the last words to the lawyers in a trial over allegations that Trump exaggerated his wealth on financial statements he provided to banks, insurance companies and others.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, wants the judge to impose $370 million in penalties. Trump says he did nothing wrong. He contends outside accountants that helped prepare the statements should’ve flagged any discrepancies and that the documents came with disclaimers that shield him from liability.

The former president had hoped to make that argument personally, but the judge — initially open to the idea — said no after a Trump lawyer missed a deadline for agreeing to ground rules. Among them, Engoron warned that Trump couldn't use his closing remarks to "deliver a campaign speech” or use the opportunity to impugn the judge and his staff.

“This entire case is a manufactured claim to pursue a political agenda,” Kise said in his closing argument. “It has been press releases and posturing but no evidence.”

Lawyers from James' office were to deliver their closing argument Thursday afternoon.

Trump returned to court as a spectator Thursday despite the death of his mother in-law, Amalija Knavs, and the launch of the presidential primary season Monday with the Iowa caucus.

Since the trial began Oct. 2, Trump has gone to court nine times to observe, testify and complain to TV cameras about the case, which he called a “witch hunt and a disgrace.”

He clashed with Engoron and state lawyers during 3½ hours on the witness stand in November and remains under a limited gag order after making a disparaging and false social media post about the judge's law clerk.

Thursday’s arguments were part of a busy legal and political stretch for Trump.

On Tuesday, he was in court in Washington, D.C., to watch appeals court arguments over whether he is immune from prosecution on charges that he plotted to overturn the 2020 election — one of four criminal cases against him. Trump has pleaded not guilty.

In New York, James sued Trump in 2022 under a state law that gives the state attorney general broad power to investigate allegations of persistent fraud in business dealings.

Kise argued the case amounted to the “weaponization” of a consumer protection statute and, urging Engoron to consider his legacy as a judge, warned that a ruling in the state’s favor would have a chilling effect on every company doing business in the state.

Engoron decided some of the key issues before testimony began. In a pretrial ruling, he found that Trump had committed years of fraud by lying about his riches on financial statements with tricks like claiming his Trump Tower penthouse was nearly three times its actual size.

The trial involves six undecided claims, including allegations of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.

Trump's company and two of his sons, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., are also defendants. Eric Trump was also in court for closing arguments.

Besides monetary damages, James wants Trump and his co-defendants barred from doing business in New York.

State lawyers say that by making himself seem richer, Trump qualified for better loan terms from banks, saving him at least $168 million.

Kise, however, said the bank didn’t lose out on anything.

He pointed to testimony from bank officials that the former president more than qualified for special services afforded to ultra-rich people, and that the bank adjusted his numbers downward and still loaned him hundreds of millions of dollars.

Kise, praising Trump as “part of the fabric of the commercial real estate industry” for a half-century, pointed to Trump’s testimony that he intended lenders to do their own research and vetting after receiving his financial statements.

The lawyer also argued that the documents understated — rather than overvalued — the former president’s net worth.

Kise acknowledged that some holdings may have been listed “higher by immaterial” amounts, but he added” “there’s plenty of assets that were undervalued by substantial sums.”

Engoron said he is deciding the case because neither side asked for a jury and state law doesn’t allow for juries for this type of lawsuit. He said he hopes to have a decision by the end of the month.

Last month, in a ruling denying a defense bid for an early verdict, the judge signaled he’s inclined to find Trump and his co-defendants liable on at least some claims.

“Valuations, as elucidated ad nauseum in this trial, can be based on different criteria analyzed in different ways," Engoron wrote in the Dec. 18 ruling. "But a lie is still a lie."

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