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Trump backs out of fraud trial testimony after failing to block gag order

The former president was scheduled to testify on Monday after losing a chance to swiftly appeal the trial’s gag order. His attorneys wanted to avoid that exact scenario

Alex Woodward
Sunday 10 December 2023 21:51 GMT
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Related video: Donald Trump claims there was ‘no fraud whatsoever’ at New York for trial

Donald Trump announced he is canceling plans for his return to the witness stand hours before he was due to testify for a second time at his fraud trial in Manhattan.

In two furious, all-caps posts on his Truth Social on Sunday, the former president revived his familiar false attacks directed at the judge overseeing the trial and the state attorney general suing him as Mr Trump maintained he did nothing wrong after he was found liable for defrauding banks and investors for over a decade.

The frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination for president has broadly characterised the case as part of a grand Democratic conspiracy to prevent him from reaching the White House after next year’s election, while he faces several lawsuits and criminal indictments to hold him accountable for his attempts to overthrow the last one.

In the New York trial, his brand-building image and his effective ability to do any kind of business in the state could be on the line. His co-defendants include his Trump Organization assets, his chief business associates, and his two adult sons.

On 7 December, Mr Trump was inside the courtroom to watch testimony from a New York University accounting professor who was paid nearly $900,000 by the Trump Organization and Mr Trump’s campaign. Across two days of testimony, Eli Bartov synthesized Mr Trump’a argument for him: The attorney general’s complaint contains no evidence of fraud, and “most of the claims were simply unsupported,” he said.

In his all-caps screed on Sunday, Mr Trump said he won’t return to the witness stand, based on the professor’s “strong” and “irrefutable” testimony and statements from “world renowned experts, highly respected bank [and] insurance executives, real estate professionals, as well as others, both honest [and] credible” that he “clearly [and] unequivocally” did nothing wrong.

A courtroom sketch depicts Donald Trump sitting next to his attorney Christopher Kise as he speaks to Judge Arthur Engoron. (REUTERS)

What would have been his 10th trip inside the New York County Supreme Court building on Centre Street on Monday was likely to be his last, as his attorneys prepare to close their case in a trial that could end this week.

The trial has been something of an experiment for Mr Trump as he prepares for many other court cases, including four criminal trials, in his near future.

The civil case in New York, however, has threatened to expose his family business and the inner workings of his real estate empire – a narrative that fuelled his campaigns for the presidency but now is at the centre of a blockbuster lawsuit alleging a decade of fraud.

A lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James filed last year accuses the defendants of defrauding banks and other financial institutions by inflating his net worth and assets on annual statements of financial conditions – the documents that are at the heart of the case – to secure favourable financing terms for some of his star properties.

Ms James’s lawsuit seeks to recover $250m (£203m) in ill-gotten gains and to strip the Trumps of doing business in the state, dealing a potentially crushing blow to the companies within his Trump Organization umbrella.

Donald Trump and his attorney Alina Habba, left, appear outside Judge Arthur Engoron’s courtroom on 7 December. (AFP via Getty Images)

Judge Arthur Engoron’s surprise pretrial judgment in September found him liable for fraud, the central allegation in the lawsuit, and outlined potentially crushing sanctions against him and his business – a punishment that is on hold while Mr Trump and his defendants appeal.

The trial, now stretching into its 11th and final week, will determine if Ms James succeeds on the six other counts in her complaint – including insurance fraud and conspiracy – and what, if any, penalties Mr Trump and his co-defendants will face.

Mr Trump has appeared alongside his attorneys at the defence table nine other times over the course of the trial, often scowling into a middle distance, or hunching forward or crossing his arms as he listened to testimony.

But the hallway outside the third-floor courtroom’s heavy wooden doors has become something of a platform for his campaign, where he can rage against the case or comment on anything else on his mind to the news cameras perched between police barricades.

When he made his debut on the witness stand on 6 November, Mr Trump gave evasive answers while insulting the judge, Ms James, his political rivals, and even the attorney asking him questions.

His testimony frequently meandered into volatile campaign rhetoric, from accusing Ms James of trying to “demean” and “hurt” him and slamming her as a “political attack,” to telling the lawyer questioning him that he should be “ashamed” of himself.

Gesturing with his hands as he fumed on the witness stand, he turned his complaints towards the judge.

“You ruled against me and you said I was a fraud,” said Mr Trump, looking towards the floor in front of him. “He called me a fraud, and he didn’t know anything about me.”

Mr Trump has been free to trash the judge and the attorney general as much as he wants, but a pair of gag orders that apply to all parties in the case prohibit his disparaging remarks about the court’s staff – which he violated twice, incurring $15,000 in fines.

Last week, he lost a last-ditch attempt for a fast-tracked appeal to block the gag orders altogether. Days later, a federal appeals court upheld a separate gag order in his election conspiracy case.

A state appeals court ruling that slows down any chance of overturning his fraud trial gag order assured that it would remain in place when Mr Trump was scheduled to sit next to the judge for his testimony.

His attorneys have been trying to avoid that exact scenario.

“I discouraged the former president from getting on a stand with a gag order,” Mr Trump’s attorney Alina Habba told Fox News on Friday. “I would never discourage the former president from testifying, because, quite honestly, our plan up until now was to have him testify. He always wanted to testify, and he should testify.”

But if Mr Trump “sees people whispering and creating a ruckus next to him, he has a right to address it so that the record is complete, and so do his lawyers,” she added.

After court filings outlined the wave of credible death threats and abusive messages that followed Mr Trump’s attacks against court staff and others, a state appeals court allowed the gag orders to stand.

“The implementation of the limited gag orders resulted in a decrease in the number of threats, harassment, and disparaging messages that the judge and his staff received,” according to a recent court filing from Charles Hollon, an officer-captain with the court’s Department of Public Safety assigned to a judicial threats unit.

“However, when Mr Trump violated the gag orders, the number of threatening, harassing and disparaging messages increased,” he added.

The threats against the judge and his clerk Allison Greenfield are “serious and credible and not hypothetical or speculative,” according to the filing.

Donald Trump appears at a New York Young Republican Club event in New York City on 9 December, two days before his was scheduled to testify in his fraud trial for a second time. (Getty Images)

Mr Trump’s last-minute cancellation follows a month of testimony from accountants, bankers and other expert witnesses that Mr Trump’s team has hoped will bolster their defence.

After he left the courthouse last week, Mr Trump returned to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

He was back in New York City on Saturday, where he was guest of honour for the New York Young Republican Club gala, where members of Trump’s inner circle schmoozed with an international alliance of far-right activists, donors and members of Congress, from US Reps Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert to Steve Bannon, Rudy Giuliani and the chair of an Austrian political party founded by former Nazis.

In an 80-minute speech to a black-tie crowd at Cipriani, Mr Trump swiped at his political rivals, defended his “dictator” remark from his highly scrutinised Fox News appearance, and claimed that President Joe Biden, not Mr Trump’s own outwardly antidemocratic agenda, presents a threat to democracy.

“It’s a hoax,” he said.

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