Experts slam Trump's lawyer for letting him testify: "Habba did absolutely no good for her client"

"It's clear Trump wanted to avoid the bloodbath of a cross-examination but wanted to say something"

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published January 25, 2024 3:45PM (EST)

Former US President Donald Trump looks on during the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization, at the New York State Supreme Court in New York City on December 7, 2023. (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President Donald Trump looks on during the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization, at the New York State Supreme Court in New York City on December 7, 2023. (EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump spent just three minutes on the witness stand Thursday in his defamation trial brought by E. Jean Carroll, using his testimony to declare that he backs his prior deposition denying the writer's claims.

When his lawyer, Alina Habba, asked if he stands by the deposition, Trump replied, "100 percent, yes."

Before Trump began his testimony, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan made clear to Habba that Trump was barred from denying the sexual abuse that a jury found Trump liable in Carroll's trial against him last year. Habba assured Kaplan that Trump would follow that rule. 

"And you say that because you personally made him aware of those confines?" Kaplan said before Trump loudly interrupted to tell his lawyer he "never met this woman." Kaplan then instructed Trump to keep his voice down.

Habba asked Trump three questions during his direct examination, her second being if Trump denied the claims because Carroll made them.

"Exactly right," Trump began. "She said something. I considered it a false accusation."

The response prompted an objection from Carroll's lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, which the judge sustained, striking the latter part of the answer. Trump also said he did not want to hurt Carroll.

"I wanted to defend myself, my family, and frankly, the presidency," Trump testified, a response that Judge Kaplan also struck, concluding Trump's direct examination. 

The former president's cross-examination from Carroll's lawyer was also brief, MSNBC's Katie Phang reported, with Roberta Kaplan asking only a few questions. 

"Is this the first trial you and Carroll have attended?" Roberta Kaplan asked Trump, to which he replied, "Yes."

As Trump left the courtroom, according to The Messenger's Adam Klasfeld, he complained to the press in the gallery, saying, "It's not America. It's not America. This is not America."

The trial will resume Friday with closing arguments and is being held to determine exactly how much Trump will pay in damages for defaming Carroll. Judge Kaplan ruled Trump liable for defamation in the current case last year based on the outcome of Carroll's trial last spring against the former president. 

Kaplan, as a result of that determination, also prohibited the former president from further challenging the accusations against him while on the stand. He was only allowed to address information that suggests Carroll was not damaged by statements he made while serving as president. 

Legal experts weighed in on the former president's brief testimony online, with former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman praising the judge for his handling of Trump.

"It's clear Trump wanted to avoid the bloodbath of a cross-examination but wanted to say something—that he stands by deposition, which is hardly helpful," Litman wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "And this is what was worked out. Notice Kaplan's strict admonitions in advance—he handled Trump well, as no other J has."

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"Kaplan's cross had to track Trump's virtual nonexistent (& largely stricken) direct, so this maneuver designed to prevent a real cross-examination," Litman added. "In effect, he opted not to testify but to take the stand for a minute, and Kaplan let him. The depo that he endorsed was already in."

Joyce Vance, a former federal prosecutor, said that "Habba did absolutely no good for her client by putting him on the stand."

Trump's testimony also followed shortly after the federal judge rejected his latest effort to have the lawsuit canned earlier that day.

“The motion is denied,” Kaplan ruled after Carroll’s case concluded, The Messenger reports.

Kaplan previously denied Trump's request for a mistrial over Carroll's testimony that she may have deleted some of the threats she received after first going public with the rape claims against Trump. The judge pointed out that Carroll did not have to keep the messages and that, if she had, they likely would have benefitted her case.

Habba argued that her arguments for the case's dismissal were being misunderstood, offering to clarify them for the judge. But Kaplan's response was short. “No,” he replied. 

The former president's testimony in the case was initially set for Monday but encountered repeated delays. On Monday, Trump's legal team agreed to pause the proceedings after a juror fell ill, while Tuesday saw Trump on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, where he later defeated over his former U.N. Ambassador, Nikki Haley.

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Trial proceedings started around 10 a.m. Eastern, about 30 minutes after the expected time, Thursday morning, The Messenger reports, "raising questions about whether another adjournment was on the horizon."

Several Trump associates attended the hearing in anticipation of the former president's testimony, including his advisor, Boris Epshteyn; his personal assistant and Florida co-defendant, Walt Nauta; and his attorney Susan Necheles, who serves as his counsel in his Manhattan hush money-related criminal case. 

Trump entered the courtroom shortly after Carroll's former boss at Elle magazine, Roberta Myers, began her testimony in the case, in which she showered the former columnist with praise. 

Carroll's legal team followed Myers' testimony with a spate of exhibits depicting Trump's recent denials of the sexual abuse  as well as other attacks of the writer. One video deposition showed the former president bragging about his wealth during New York Attorney General Letitia James' fraud lawsuit against him. 

"I think Doral could be worth $2.5 billion by itself," Trump claimed in April 2023. James' lawsuit accused him of fraudulently adjusting his assets to obtain better loan terms, which the presiding judge found him liable of in September. 

"Carroll's legal team might use Trump’s boasts to argue that only a massive judgment could deter him," The Messenger writes. 

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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Aggregate Alina Habba Defamation Donald Trump E. Jean Carroll News