Donald Trump defies judge, gives courtroom speech on tense final day of New York civil fraud trial

Trump’s return to the civil trial came days before the Iowa caucuses.

Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom before the start of closing arguments in his civil business fraud trial at New York Supreme Court, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, in New York.

Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom before the start of closing arguments in his civil business fraud trial at New York Supreme Court, Thursday, Jan. 11, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, Pool)

Barred from giving a formal closing argument, Donald Trump still seized an opportunity to speak in court at the conclusion of his New York civil fraud trial Thursday, unleashing a barrage of attacks in a six-minute diatribe before being cut off by the judge.

Trump spoke as the judge was trying to find out if the former president would follow rules requiring him to keep his remarks focused on matters related to the trial. Asked whether he would comply with the guidelines, Trump defied the judge and simply launched into his speech.

“We have a situation where I am an innocent man,” Trump protested. “I’m being persecuted by someone running for office and I think you have to go outside the bounds.”

Judge Arthur Engoron — who earlier denied Trump’s extraordinary request to give his own closing statement — let him continue almost uninterrupted for what amounted to a brief personal summation, then cut him off for a scheduled lunch break.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Trump’s in-court remarks ensured a tumultuous final day for a trial over allegations that he habitually exaggerated his wealth on financial statements he provided to banks, insurance companies and others.

Adding to the day’s tension, the exchange took place hours after authorities responded to a bomb threat at the judge’s house in New York City’s suburbs. The scare didn’t delay the start of court proceedings.

Trump, the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, has disparaged Engoron throughout the trial, accusing him in a social media post Wednesday night of working closely with the New York attorney general “to screw me.”

On Wednesday, Engoron had nixed an unusual plan by Trump to deliver his own closing remarks in the courtroom, in addition to summations from his legal team. The sticking point was that Trump’s lawyers would not agree to the judge’s demand that he stick to “relevant” matters” and not try to introduce new evidence or make a campaign speech.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

After two of Trump’s lawyers had delivered traditional closing arguments Thursday, one of them, Christopher Kise, asked the judge again whether Trump could speak. Engoron asked Trump whether he would abide by the guidelines.

Trump then launched into his remarks.

“This is a fraud on me. What’s happened here, Sir, is a fraud on me,” Trump said. He later accused the judge of not listening to him. “I know this is boring to you.”

“Control your client,” Engoron warned Kise.

Engoron then told Trump he had a minute left, let him speak a little more, and then adjourned.

In their closing remarks Thursday afternoon, lawyers representing New York state said that Trump and his attorneys had relied on false statements and irrelevant expert testimony to make their case.

“What we have not heard from defendants are any new facts,” state lawyer Kevin Wallace said in his summation, arguing that Trump’s financial statements were false and “each defendant was acting knowingly and intentionally” to inflate the numbers.

Trump echoed the bulk of his courtroom speech at a news conference later Thursday that served as counter programming to the state’s closing argument. Trump peppered his remarks at a lower Manhattan office building he owns and could lose control of as a result of the trial with barbs about President Joe Biden, rape accuser E. Jean Carroll and other adversaries.

The day began with police on Long Island checking out the threat at Engoron’s Long Island home. At 5:30 a.m. Nassau County police said they responded to a “swatting incident” at the house in Great Neck. Nothing amiss was found at the location, officials said.

Taking the bench a few minutes late, Engoron made no mention of the incident.

The false report came days after a fake emergency call reporting a shooting at the home of the judge in Trump’s Washington, D.C. criminal case. The incidents are among a recent spate of similar false reports at the homes of public officials.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, sued Trump in 2022 under a state law that gives the state attorney general broad power to investigate allegations of persistent fraud in business dealings. She wants the judge to impose $370 million in penalties.

Engoron decided some of the key issues before testimony began. In a pretrial ruling, he found that Trump had committed years of fraud by lying about his riches on financial statements with tricks like claiming his Trump Tower penthouse was nearly three times its actual size.

The trial involves six undecided claims, including allegations of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records. Trump’s company and two of his sons, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., are also defendants. Eric Trump was also in court for closing arguments.

During his closing argument, Kise contended Trump did nothing wrong and didn’t mislead anyone about his wealth.

“Forty-four days of trial — not one witness came into this courtroom, your honor, and said there was fraud,” Kise said, contending his client “should get a medal” for his business acumen instead of punishment he deemed the “corporate death penalty.”

“This entire case is a manufactured claim to pursue a political agenda,” Kise said. “It has been press releases and posturing but no evidence.”

Since the trial began Oct. 2, Trump has gone to court nine times to observe, testify and complain to TV cameras about the case.

He clashed with Engoron and state lawyers during 3½ hours on the witness stand in November and remains under a limited gag order after making a disparaging and false social media post about the judge’s law clerk.

Thursday’s arguments were part of a busy legal and political stretch for Trump.

On Tuesday, he was in court in Washington, D.C., to watch appeals court arguments over whether he is immune from prosecution on charges that he plotted to overturn the 2020 election — one of four criminal cases against him. Trump has pleaded not guilty. On Monday, the presidential primary season kicks off with the Iowa caucus.

Besides monetary damages, James wants Trump and his co-defendants barred from doing business in New York.

State lawyers say that by making himself seem richer, Trump qualified for better loan terms from banks, saving him at least $168 million.

Kise acknowledged that some holdings may have been listed “higher by immaterial” amounts, but he added” “there’s plenty of assets that were undervalued by substantial sums.”

Engoron said he is deciding the case because neither side asked for a jury and state law doesn’t allow for juries for this type of lawsuit. He said he hopes to have a decision by the end of the month.

Last month, in a ruling denying a defense bid for an early verdict, the judge signaled he’s inclined to find Trump and his co-defendants liable on at least some claims.

“Valuations, as elucidated ad nauseum in this trial, can be based on different criteria analyzed in different ways,” Engoron wrote in the Dec. 18 ruling. “But a lie is still a lie.”


Associated Press reporters Michelle L. Price contributed to this report.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal