Trump’s fraud trial strategy could be politically effective. But it is legally disastrous

(Elizabeth Williams/Associated Press)

Trump’s fraud trial strategy could be politically effective. But it is legally disastrous

Opinion piece, Elections 2024

Harry Litman

November 8, 2023

Annoyed by Donald Trump’s unresponsive monologues during testimony in his fraud trial in New York this week, Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron finally told the former president’s lawyer to rein him in. This is not a political meeting, the judge said. This is a courtroom.

However, Engoron was mistaken. It was a courtroom


a political meeting.

Trump turned his time in the stands into one

tub-thumping tub-thumping

reciting the themes he hopes will carry him to a second term: that the deep state is persecuting him because of his popularity and that his election would mean retaliation for him and his supporters.

Trump’s testimony was primarily a high-stakes legal showdown in a civil case that threatens to impoverish his family and decimate their brand. And from a legal point of view, he was run.

The judge has already ruled in favor of New York Atty. General Letitia James that Trump and his company committed fraud. The battle now centers on the extent of Trump’s liability for a series of comically inflated valuations of their properties, mainly to secure loans.

Trump’s testimony included a series of damaging admissions within a cloud of attacks on the judge, the attorney general and the entire process. It scored many important legal points for James and none for Trump.

In contrast, his daughter Ivanka’s demeanor on Wednesday was mostly polite and professional. She did help with James’ claim that her father misrepresented his personal wealth to secure lower interest rates, but her testimony might have seemed boring to someone walking into the courtroom.

Not so the older Trump. In response to questions from State’s Attorney Kevin Wallace earlier this week, he acknowledged more than once that he had lowered the valuation of assets such as his estate in Westchester County, N.Y., which he considered too high. He also admitted that he tended to view ratings more broadly: I would see them, and maybe occasionally have some suggestions.

And he dealt with inaccuracies in the statements, for example the ridiculous valuation of his Trump Tower apartment, which was based on square footage that was almost three times its actual size.

Trump also acknowledged that he understood that the financial valuations he signed were intended to secure loans.

You can be sure that Engoron will highlight these admissions as evidence that Trump knew the valuations he signed were false.

Trump intervened with a number of so-called homegrown defenses, oblivious to or indifferent to its legal irrelevance.

For example, he emphasized that because the Trump Organization has repaid the loans,


there was no victim here


That’s a nonstarter as a defense, because the charge of knowingly submitting false appraisals doesn’t require that the banks lost money. The important point is that the false statements allowed Trump to get better terms.

Expert testimony earlier in the trial suggested the company’s lies saved it $168 million in interest. Wait until Engoron orders Trump’s company to release that and more.

Trump’s second trump card, he thought, was a disclaimer in the fine print that banks should not rely on the companies’ estimates. Trump even had a copy of the clause in his vest pocket that he tried to produce on the stand. But the argument misses the point for the same reason: it is irrelevant to the charge of knowingly submitting false appraisals.

The judge sharply rejected it: No, no, no, we are not going to hear anything about the disclaimer clause. If you want to know more about the disclaimer clause, read my opinion again

or perhaps for the first time.

Well, you’re wrong about that view, Trump replied with characteristic arrogance. It was one of a series of insults from a judge authorized to rule on Trump’s credibility. That makes the former president’s childish attacks on Engoron a kamikaze mission.

Legally, Trump started in a hole and then dug straight down. Nearly every observer of the trial expects a verdict that will be devastating for Trump and potentially destroy what remains of his business empire.

And yet we cannot ignore the feeling that Trump did not only inflict this legal damage on himself


he did this on purpose.

Think of the bitter tirades he spewed at various targets at spontaneous intervals. He told Wallace, the prosecutor, to be ashamed of himself; he pointed at James and shouted: She’s the fraudster!; he exclaimed: This is a very unfair trial. Really bad.

He ranted and raved in a way that would have landed many other witnesses in handcuffs. But Engoron largely let it go, be careful not to take the bait and create an issue on appeal. And Wallace was content to let Trump run away from the nuggets of damning testimony embedded in his anger.

I am not among those who believe in Trump’s secret strategic genius, and I do not view his unhinged fulminations as a calculated political masterstroke. But the entire spectacle was the clearest illustration yet of the most bizarre feature of Trump’s legal troubles: Every motion, every testimony, every legal theory is entirely political.

a political meeting in a courtroom.

Trump is a one-trick pony whose approach to every situation is the same toxic brew of spite, vanity and hatred. His legal strategy is identical to his political strategy.

We can expect him to have even worse legal days as he faces increasingly serious threats to his fortune and freedom. We can count on him to continue to respond in ways that will damage his legal prospects but delight his followers as he tries to make a joke about the legal system. We can only hope the system has the last laugh.

Harry Litman is the host of the

Talking Feds Podcast




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