"Astonishing": Experts say Trump meltdown shows why lawyers won't let him testify at criminal trials

"If Trump lawyers are having this many issues in a civil trial, imagine how they’re going to handle a criminal one"

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published November 6, 2023 1:18PM (EST)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom during his civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court on November 06, 2023 in New York City. (Jabin Botsford-Pool/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom during his civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court on November 06, 2023 in New York City. (Jabin Botsford-Pool/Getty Images)

The beginning of Donald Trump's Monday testimony in his New York civil fraud trial stunned legal observers as the former president's conduct on the witness stand — taking aim at the judge and the attorney general, and dancing around the prosecution's questions  — drew the ire of presiding Judge Arthur Engoron. 

When the New York attorney general's counsel showed Trump his statement of financial condition from June 30, 2011, the former president minimized its significance, The Messenger's Adam Klasfeld reported, pointing to the disclaimer, which Trump said is called "a worthless statement clause," and claiming, "They were not really documents that the banks paid much attention to." 

"Trump trots out claim that the company financial statements contained fine print in them that essentially meant they could be inaccurate or even contain deliberate lies," Andrew Weissmann, a former assistant U.S. attorney and prosecutor in Robert Mueller's office tweeted of the exchange. "The judge already rejected this argument."

Trump then launched into a monologue: "As this crazy trial goes along," the former president began, the defense will call bankers and "they will explain what the process is."

Engoron interrupted, explaining that the attorney general's counsel has been "patient" and telling Trump to answer only the questions presented to him. But Trump continued on a tangent about the statute of limitations, taking a jab at Engoron in the process. 

"I'm sure the judge will rule against me because he always rules against me," the former president said.

In response, Engoron asked Kise if that comment was necessary before telling Trump, "You can attack me, do whatever you want, but answer the question."

The former president's testimony then turned to properties he insisted were "underestimated" and repeated false claims that the judge had estimated Mar-a-Lago's at $18 million. Engoron, who actually cited a 2011 appraisal of the property, didn't engage with the remark, instead opting to remind Trump of the question. 

As Trump's testimony went on, he continued to provide answers that went beyond the question and rail against the attorney general. At one point Trump's response prompted the attorney general's counsel to move to strike his answer, which the judge granted.

"Mr. Kise, can you control your client? This is not a political rally. This is a courtroom," Engoron said to Kise, per ABC News, adding, "maybe you should have a talk with him right now.”

"You're in control of the courtroom, not me," Kise, according to Klasfeld, eventually told the judge before choosing to not confer with Trump.

The former president went on to boast about his financial statements — another set of comments the judge struck down independently — as well as the location of the value of another property, Niketown, upon being asked about its valuation. When Engoron interjected with, "Excuse me," Trump continued his spiel, telling the judge to "hold on."

"Mr. Kise, can you control your witness because I am considering drawing a negative inference on any question he might be asked?" Engoron said. Kise urged the judge against doing so.

"I beseech you to control him, if you can," the judge said again shortly after, warning Kise that he would control the former president if the attorney did not. 

Kise and fellow Trump lawyer Alina Habba then rose to defend Trump's answers, arguing that they're responsive to the questions. Habba added that the judge is here to "hear what he has to say."

"I'm not here to hear what he has to say. He's here to answer questions," Engoron snapped in response, ordering Kise and Habba to sit down. 

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Legal experts, though unsurprised by Trump's courtroom conduct, seemed floored by what the former president was getting away with on the stand.

"Already sparks are flying in all directions in trumps testimony – Trump surly w/ AG, Kise criticizing questioning, and judge striking Trump responses without being asked," former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "Going to be a really crazy day and Trump likely to blow his cool on multiple occasions."

"Donald Trump forgetting that this is a bench trial not a jury trial," wrote MSNBC legal analyst Katie Phang.

"Yet another reminder of why Trump will never testify at his criminal trials," national security lawyer Bradley Moss tweeted, pointing to Engoron's requests for Trump's comments to be tamped down.

"If the Trump lawyers are having these many issues in a civil trial, imagine how they’re going to handle a criminal one," Moss added

"Mind you, this is Engoron extending to Trump the ability to smear the presiding judge in a way other individuals could not do without fear of being held in contempt," he said in another tweet, referring to when Engoron told Trump he could attack him. 

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"Engoron is giving Trump multiple chances here in light of expected appeals," Moss added. "He is showing how he is bending over backwards."

"Astonishing," Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney said on X. "No one else would get away with this and Trump should not be permitted to."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Aggregate Arthur Engoron Chris Kise Donald Trump Letitia James Politics