Judge rescinds permission for Trump to give his own closing argument at his civil fraud trial

Closing arguments are set for Thursday, which could cost Trump hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties and strip him of his ability to do business in New York.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media at a Washington hotel, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, after attending a hearing before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals at the federal courthouse in Washington.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media at a Washington hotel, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, after attending a hearing before the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals at the federal courthouse in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Donald Trump won’t make his own closing argument in his New York civil business fraud trial after his lawyers objected to the judge’s insistence that the former president would stick to “relevant” matters.

Judge Arthur Engoron rescinded permission for the unusual plan on Wednesday, a day ahead of closing arguments in the trial. Trump attorney Alina Habba responded: “Is anyone surprised anymore?”

The trial could cost Trump hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties and strip him of his ability to do business in New York. The lawsuit, brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, claims that Trump’s net worth was inflated by billions of dollars on financial statements that helped him secure business loans and insurance.

The former president and current Republican 2024 front-runner denies any wrongdoing, and he has lambasted the case as a “hoax” and a political attack on him. James and the judge are Democrats.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

It’s extremely uncommon for people who have lawyers to give their own closing arguments. But Trump’s lawyers had signaled privately to the judge last week that the ex-president planned to deliver a summation personally, in addition to arguments from his legal team.

In an email exchange that happened over recent days and was filed in court Wednesday, Engoron initially approved the request, saying he was “inclined to let everyone have his or her say.”

But he said Trump would have to limit his remarks to the boundaries that cover attorneys’ closing arguments: “commentary on the relevant, material facts that are in evidence, and application of the relevant law to those facts.”

He would not be allowed to introduce new evidence, “comment on irrelevant matters” or “deliver a campaign speech” — or impugn the judge, his staff, the attorney general, her lawyers or the court system, the judge wrote.

Trump attorney Christopher Kise responded that those limitations were “fraught with ambiguities, creating the substantial likelihood for misinterpretation or an unintended violation.” Engoron said that they were ”reasonable, normal limits” and would allow for comments on the attorney general’s arguments but not personal attacks.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Kise termed the restrictions “very unfair.”

“You are not allowing President Trump, who has been wrongfully demeaned and belittled by an out of control, politically motivated attorney general, to speak about the things that must be spoken about,” the attorney wrote.

“I won’t debate this yet again. Take it or leave it,” the judge shot back, with an all-caps addition: “I will not grant any further extensions.”

After not hearing from Trump’s lawyers by a noon Wednesday deadline, Engoron wrote that he assumed Trump was not agreeing to the ground rules and therefore would not be speaking.

Earlier in the exchange, the judge also denied Kise’s request to postpone closing arguments until Jan. 29 because of the death Tuesday of Trump’s mother-in-law, Amalija Knavs. The judge expressed condolences but said he was sticking to the scheduled date, citing the security and logistics required for Trump’s planned visit to court.

Taking on a role usually performed by an attorney is risky for any defendant. But Trump’s desire to speak in court was potentially even more precarious, as he has already run afoul of the judge over prior comments about the case.

Engoron imposed a limited gag order, barring all participants in the trial from commenting about court staffers, after Trump made a disparaging social media post about the judge’s law clerk on the second day of the trial in October. The post included a false insinuation about the clerk’s personal life.

The judge later fined Trump a total of $15,000, saying he’d repeatedly violated the order. Trump’s defense team is appealing it.

During the recent email exchange about Trump’s potential summation, Engoron warned Trump’s lawyers that if the former president violated the gag order, he’d be removed from the courtroom and fined at least $50,000.

Trump testified in the case in November, sparring verbally with the judge and state lawyers as he defended himself and his real estate empire. He considered a second round of testimony, during the portion of the trial when his own lawyers were calling witnesses. After teasing his return appearance, he changed course and said he had “nothing more to say.”

Get the WHYY app!

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