It was a rough day in court for the Trump boys.
But even before Donald Jr. and Eric had wrapped up an unconvincing day of testimony in a New York civil fraud trial, their father erupted.
“So sad to see my sons being PERSECUTED in a political Witch Hunt by this out of control, publicity seeking, New York State Judge, on a case that should have NEVER been brought,” ex-President Donald Trump posted on his Truth Social. “Legal Scholars Scream Disgrace!”
The ex-president was wasting no time in firing up the classic divert, discredit and delay defense strategy that he’s deploying across his staggeringly broad legal exposure that includes four looming criminal trials weighing on his 2024 White House bid.
Trump’s latest blast against Judge Arthur Engoron, who has already found Trump, his two adult sons and their family empire – the Trump Organization – liable for fraud, also served as a preemptive blow ahead of the ex-president’s own expected testimony in the civil trial in the courtroom on Monday. The sometimes strange goings on at the court in New York are offering early insight into how the even more high-profile and criminal cases facing Trump could play out in an unprecedented election year when the campaign trail will run through the courts as well as key swing states.
Trump fights his cases outside the courtroom
Trump’s legal defense has become indistinguishable from his presidential campaign as he struggles to cope with accountability imposed by courtroom procedures but portrays himself as a victim of political hounding. Just as he tarnished the reputation of the US electoral system among millions of his supporters with false claims of election fraud, the ex-president is now seeking to trash the image of another pillar of American democracy: the courts. And characteristically, he is accusing President Joe Biden, his Justice Department and various prosecutors of being guilty of the very transgression that he himself perpetrated as he portrays the cases against him as “Election Interference.”
Trump put his two adult sons in charge of his real estate firm when he became president, but despite their positions of authority, both insisted they had very little to do with dealing with their father’s financial statements, which were used in securing loans on the firm’s behalf.
“That’s not the focus of my day. I focus on construction. I don’t focus on appraisals,” Eric Trump said at one point, after a long exchange in which Assistant New York Attorney General Andrew Amer tried to show his deep involvement in the affairs of a development at a Trump golf course in New York.
The case rests on claims that Trump, his sons and their firm inflated statements of the ex-president’s personal wealth to get financial benefits in loan and insurance policies worth tens of millions of dollars. The case is a civil one and does not allege criminal behavior but could result in heavy financial restitution and end the company’s capacity to do business in New York. It’s therefore critical to Trump’s own financial health, his legacy and the future prospects of his family.
Things grew heated when Amer apparently succeeded in undermining Eric Trump’s claims that he had little to do with his father’s financial statements. “I understand we had financials as a company,” Eric Trump said. But he added: “I was not personally aware of the statement of financial condition.” Amer, however, showed him an email he was sent in 2013 from the firm’s former financial controller Jeff McConney who asked him to value a property that included a supporting data spreadsheet.
“So you did know about your father’s annual financial statement, as of August 20, 2013, didn’t you?” Amer asked. Eric Trump replied: “It appears that way, yes.”
In essence, both Trump sons are arguing that despite running the company, they knew nothing about its financial statements.
Earlier, Donald Trump Jr. had insisted that he was similarly unaware about details of his father’s finances – despite signing off on them – and that he relied on accountants to worry about the details. After his own testimony concluded he strolled out of court, saying it went “really well.” Blatantly and brazenly disregarding evidence that clearly contradicts such assertions is another time-worn Trump tactic. After the ex-president was impeached over an account of a telephone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that showed him trying to leverage US military aid for a political benefit, the former president repeatedly insisted that he had conducted “a perfect call.”
Outside the courtroom Thursday, Donald Trump Jr. also dipped into his father’s bag of political tricks by portraying himself as the innocent target of a witch-hunt.
“I think it went really well, if we were actually dealing with logic and reason the way business is conducted,” he said, adding that “unfortunately the AG has brought forth a case that is purely a political persecution.”
Engoron has already ruled against the Trumps on one of the claims at issue — persistent and repeated fraud — so the trial is about various other claims of conspiracy and falsifying business records. It will also decide how much the Republican front-runner and his companies could be forced to pay in restitution.
Before court ended for the day on Thursday, Trump’s legal team also resorted to another familiar tactic — targeting court staff and the judge in order to build a conceit that the entire trial is unfair and the legal system that appears likely to deliver a damning judgment against him is corrupt.
Two Trump lawyers raised questions about the conduct of the judge’s clerk — who Trump has also attacked online, earning fines for infringing a gag order. Engoron commented that there could be “a bit of misogyny” in criticism of the female clerk. In a bizarre passage of the trial, Trump attorney Chris Kise insisted: “I’m not a misogynist. I’m very happily married, and I have a 17-year-old daughter.” Then his colleague Alina Habba rose to defend her colleague and insisted he wasn’t a misogynist. The Trump team has accused the clerk of co-judging the case, much to Trump’s anger.
CNN legal analyst Shan Wu said that neither the testimony of Eric Trump nor the strategy of attacking court personnel seemed like a smart approach.
“This tactic of … trying to totally distance themselves, saying that they know nothing about the financial statements, plus the admission that came out from Eric – I think it really hurts their credibility,” Wu said on “The Situation Room.”
Referring to the objections to Engoron’s clerk, Wu added: “It is unfathomable to me why his defense counsel are using that kind of tactic here.”
Another Trump – Ivanka, the ex-president’s eldest daughter – has been trying to avoid testifying next week in the case after she was dismissed as a defendant. In a late Thursday filing, her lawyer argued that she would suffer an “undue hardship” if made to travel from her home in Florida, where she lives with three minor children, to appear in the middle of a school week.
A higher court, however, swiftly denied the bid to block the order for her testimony and pause the trial until an appeal could be heard by the New York appellate court.
In other cases, Trump plays for delays
Another quintessential Trump legal strategy is again in operation in Washington, DC, as his lawyers seek to delay his trial in the federal election interference case — possibly until after an election that could hand Trump the power to end or disrupt many legal threats against him if he becomes the 47th President.
Trump’s legal team on Wednesday asked Judge Tanya Chutkan to delay a trial scheduled to take place in March — during the heat of the GOP primary race — as the legal system works through his bid to get the case dismissed on the grounds that he’s immune from prosecution on any actions he took while president. His attorneys also this week asked a judge in Florida to delay the trial in a case over the ex-president’s handling of classified documents until after November’s election.
Trump’s team is entitled to exhaust all possible legal avenues as they prepare for his trials since the integrity of the legal system rests on defendants getting a fair hearing and wielding every potential remedy. Even so, during his long business and political career, Trump’s legal maneuverings often seem designed to tie courts in knots and to delay accountability while mocking the spirit of those protections.
And the idea that a president is free from legal accountability for anything he does in office would have grave implications to the bedrock principles of constrained presidential power and the idea that everyone is equal under the law.
It would pave the way for a second potential Trump term that tests the constitutional limits on executive power even more than the first one. Trump, who is showing increasingly autocratic instincts on the campaign trail, has already promised his supporters a new term would be devoted to political “retribution.”
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