Trump on Trial: Judicial Excess, Partisan Bias
Donald Trump took the stand Monday in New York State Attorney General Letitia James’s long running fraud litigation against the former president, a case filled with startling twists and turns.
On September 26, one week before the civil action was set to open at trial, the judge in the case delivered a surprise ruling. Justice Arthur Engoron issued an order canceling Trump’s certification to do business in New York. The order stripped Trump of control of the iconic Trump Tower; of a family estate and golf club in Westchester County; and of 40 Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, a lucrative commercial property. At times it seems as if the entire Trump family is on trial. Trump’s two adult sons, Don Jr. and Eric, were called to the stand by the prosecution last week; his daughter Ivanka is slated to testify this week.
In her civil lawsuit, James alleged that Trump, Trump family members, and Trump Organization executives had committed fraud. Engoron agreed. Financial statements that Trump had submitted to banks and insurers to support real estate deals, wrote Engoron, “contain fraudulent valuations.” The Trump businesses would be placed in receivership “to manage the dissolution.”
Legal experts attacked the Engoron ruling as harsh and unprecedented. “This is a version of business law capital punishment,” a Columbia Law School corporate law expert told the Washington Post. “I’m not aware of a precedent at this scale.”
The non-jury trial opened October 2. The only issue left for trial is how big a penalty Trump will pay. James is looking for a fine upward of $250 million and Engoron himself will decide the penalty. But the deadlier blow already has been delivered with Engoron’s judicial strike against Trump businesses in New York.
The optics of the case are hard to miss. Trump, the builder of business empires, is denuded of his empire. The frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination is brought low.
Which is precisely what James has been promising for years. A New York City Democrat from the progressive wing of the party, James made Trump the centerpiece of her campaign to become state attorney general. She repeatedly denounced Trump as an “illegitimate president” and vowed to “shine a bright light into every corner of his real estate dealings.”
Engoron seems largely cut from the same political cloth. A longtime Democrat, he “has ruled repeatedly against Trump in the three years he’s been presiding over James’ lawsuit,” notes the Associated Press. “He’s forced Trump to sit for a deposition, held him in contempt and fined him $110,000.” A graduate of Columbia University, Engoron once noted that he took part in “huge, sometimes boisterous, Vietnam War protests.” He has been a member of the ACLU for nearly thirty years. Trump and Engoron have sparred for weeks over a gag order imposed on the former president.
Trump’s lawyers argue there was “no nefarious intent” in submitting the real estate valuations at the heart of the case. Trump lawyer Christopher Kise told the court that different financial estimates often simply reflect “change in a complex, sophisticated real estate corporation.”
Banks and insurers doing business with the Trump Organization knew exactly what they were getting into, Kise said. “Banks and insurers know that the [financial] statements are estimates.” The banks were not victims, the defense argues, saying they made money from the deals.
In a surprise twist shortly after the trial opened, a New York appeals court temporarily halted Engoron’s order to dissolve the Trump business empire while Trump appeals the ruling. The trial was allowed to continue.
But Trump appears resigned to his fate in Engoron’s court. Outside the courtroom, he has denounced the case as “a scam” and “a sham” and “an attempt to hurt me in an election.” Inside the courtroom, the Trump team continues to hammer away at the prosecution’s case, apparently laying the groundwork for an appeal. On the stand Monday, Trump denounced the proceedings as “very unfair” in a day of legal fireworks.
The Democrat-leanings of James and Engoron, and oversteps by Engoron, increase Trump’s odds for a successful appeal. And then there is the larger question of the whole proceeding and its kangaroo court miasma: would this case ever have been brought against someone not named Trump?
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Tips: [email protected]
Investigative Bulletin is published by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: [email protected]