“Full-blown circus”: Experts say Trump’s list of 127 defense witnesses won’t fly with the judge

“There is no way,” attorney says, accusing Trump of playing “cat-and-mouse game” to derail NY AG’s preparations

By Areeba Shah

Staff Writer

Published November 8, 2023 3:53PM (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)

Former President Donald Trump’s potential list of witnesses in his $250 million civil fraud lawsuit in New York exceeds 120 people, which has the potential to drag out the legal proceedings. 

The lawsuit by New York Attorney General Letitia James accuses Trump and his family businesses of inflating real estate asset values to deceive lenders and insurance providers into receiving better terms for loans and insurance policies. James has asked that the former president pay $250 million and that he and his sons be permanently barred from doing business in New York.

Justice Arthur Engoron, the judge overseeing the case, already ruled before the trial even started that Trump and the other defendants were liable for fraud. However, when the trial ends, Engoron will make the final decision regarding the extent of Trump's penalties or any other punitive measures. 

Trump, his adult children, and his closest business advisers have been called to testify so far. The attorney general’s office is expected to rest its case after Ivanka’s testimony. She was the top executive at the Trump Organization between 2011 and 2017.

Trump's lawyers filed a list of 127 potential witnesses they may ask to take the stand in the trial, including many witnesses who have already testified.

“At the end of the day, particularly in a bench trial, Mr. Trump’s histrionics and chaos creation may help him politically, but not in court,” James Sample, a Hofstra University constitutional law professor, told Salon. “Witnesses who add genuine value are entirely appropriate. Witnesses whose testimony is irrelevant, duplicative or strictly political will likely be given an appropriately short leash.”

Throughout the trial, the Trump team's legal approach has revolved around prolonging the proceedings by repeatedly challenging the evidence presented by James and raising legal arguments that Engoron had already barred.

During his own testimony, the former president used his time on the stand to attack the attorney general, calling her a “political hack” and lashing out at the judge in a manner reminiscent of his campaign trail speeches. 

At one point, the judge warned Trump to stop using the courtroom as a “political rally” and warned his attorney “to control him” or he would be removed as a witness. 

Trump did, however, acknowledge that valuations for his properties were not always accurate, but also asserted that these inaccuracies were inconsequential to the financial institutions that used them to price deals.

While Trump has the right to mount a “vigorous defense,” the court is not likely to look favorably on witnesses whose testimony is irrelevant to the claims in the case, Sample said. 

“The key is that the relevance of the testimony will be defined, importantly, not by what Mr. Trump thinks the law is or should be, but rather by New York law,” he added. 

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It comes as no surprise now that the former president’s team has an extensive roster of witnesses to call on, potentially leading to further delays in the proceedings, and possibly stretching the Trump team's defense to over a month.

“There is no way the defense will call 100 witnesses,” former federal prosecutor Neama Rahmani told Salon. “They may not even call 10 witnesses. This is a cat and mouse game so the attorney general’s office doesn’t have time to prepare their cross-examination.”

The fraud case is a bench trial and the only issues are about the properties being inflated, who caused them to be, who knew about it, and what harm was caused by the overvaluation, Rahmani explained. The judge isn’t going to allow more than a hundred witnesses to testify about irrelevant issues like Trump tried to on Monday, he added.

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Apart from this lawsuit, Trump is a defendant in four separate criminal cases, two of which are linked to his efforts to challenge the 2020 presidential election victory of Democrat Joe Biden. In these cases, Trump’s legal team has employed a similar strategy of dragging out the legal process in an attempt to delay his trials. 

"Prolonging the trial with lots of witnesses may make for good political theater, but it won’t move the ball forward in the legal case,” Rahmani said. “Judge Engoron has done a poor job controlling his courtroom so far, and if he were to allow this, it would turn into a full-blown circus.”

By Areeba Shah

Areeba Shah is a staff writer at Salon covering news and politics. Previously, she was a research associate at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a reporting fellow for the Pulitzer Center, where she covered how COVID-19 impacted migrant farmworkers in the Midwest.

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