November 6, 2023 –Donald Trump’s day in court was never going to go any other way.
On the stand for a landmark fraud trial, he approached his testimony just as he had his real estate business and political career: ignoring the rules and technicalities, and blustering and bragging his way through it.
His aggressive and freewheeling appearance on Monday offered a glimpse at how he may behave as a defendant in the four upcoming criminal cases against him.
The former president repeatedly angered Judge Arthur Engoron by refusing to directly answer the questions put to him by the attorney general’s office.
Yes-or-no questions about accounting documents and dates became extended riffs on the incredible values of his properties, or the partisan leanings of the judge and prosecutors.
At one point, Mr Trump declared: “This is a very unfair trial…and I hope the public is watching.”
Safe in the knowledge that they were, Mr Trump used his time on the stand to ardently defend himself from prosecutors with the same language he has used in social media statements and stump speeches to rile up his base.
One technical question about the control of a trust which held his assets while he served in the White House saw Mr Trump come out swinging.
“You and about every other Democrat district attorneys, [attorney general], US attorneys, etc, were coming after me from 15 sides,” he railed.
“All Democrats, all Trump haters, all cases that are not good, inappropriate and not good. Weaponisation, they call it.”
To a question from Kevin Wallace of the attorney general’s office about his brand’s valuation, he bragged: “I became president because of my brand. I sell books at levels that are incredible because of my brand.”
And in response to questions his golf course in Aberdeen, Scotland, Mr Trump revered to his political opposition to windfarms, one of which was built offshore his club.
“I’m not a windmill person. I think I’m proven to be right.”
Evasive and partisan answers continued on like this all morning.
“Can you control your client?” Judge Engoron asked Mr Trump’s attorneys at one point. “This is not a political rally, this is a courtroom.”
It was one of several reprimands issued from the bench throughout the morning.
Witnesses usually do not speak without prompting, let alone at such length. But Mr Trump is no normal defendant.
His lawyer Chris Kise admitted as much after the umpteenth admonishment from Judge Engoron.
“It’s an unusual situation,” he said, arguing that Mr Trump should be allowed to speak due to his unique position.
The judge, however, was intent to treat Mr Trump like any other defendant.
The attorney general’s office has accused Mr Trump, his top employees and his companies of fraudulently inflating the value of their assets on statements of financial condition, or balance sheets, to get more favourable loans.
While on the stand, the 45th president sought to use the opportunity to boast about the value of his brand – a path he used to great effect when launching his political career nearly a decade ago.
And in between outbursts, Mr Trump tried to hammer home a defence that his assets were actually worth far more than the numbers on paper.
He claimed his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago was worth a “very big number”, far in excess to the one listed on his statements of financial condition.
And he boasted that Trump Tower, his 5th Avenue skyscraper, occupied the “best location in New York”.
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Mr Trump has been on the stand before. In fact, Judge Engoron had put him there, briefly, earlier in the trial, after he made remarks that the judge believed referred to his clerk.
But he is doing so as a former president, current frontrunner for the Republican nomination, and a defendant in four separate criminal trials that, unlike this case, come with jail time. Those trials will play out one by one next year in tandem with the US presidential election.
With the threats against him mounting, Mr Trump’s rhetoric has grown more aggressive, reverting to the political street brawler that saw him seize the 2016 Republican nomination from establishment lawmakers.
He has attacked prosecutors directly by name, and lashed out at court staffers.
Judge Engoron placed Mr Trump under a gag order in early October after he made disparaging comments about his clerk, who sits to his right. So far, he has fined Mr Trump $15,000 and put his attorneys under a gag order as well, after they claimed the clerk was biased.
Midway through his morning testimony, Mr Trump dared to take a swipe directly at the judge.
“I’m sure the judge will rule against me because he always rules against me,” Mr Trump said.
“You can attack me, do whatever you want,” Judge Ergonon said. “But answer the question.”
The trial continues this afternoon.
With additional reporting from Madeline Halpert & Chloe Kim in court in New York.