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Former President Donald Trump spars with New York judge in civil fraud trial

Former President Donald Trump, center, waits to take the witness stand at New York Supreme Court on Monday.
Brendan McDermid
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AP
Former President Donald Trump, center, waits to take the witness stand at New York Supreme Court on Monday.

Updated November 6, 2023 at 4:39 PM ET

For just over four hours, former President Donald Trump took the witness stand to answer questions over his knowledge of fraudulent financial statements filed by the Trump Organization.

It did not take long for the testimony to take a dramatic turn, marked by verbal sparring among Trump, his lawyers and New York Judge Arthur Engoron. The judge asked lawyers to control the former president for his extended answers, Trump accused the judge of ruling against him and also accused the state attorney general of being a political hack.

Engoron reminded Trump, who is the front-runner for the GOP nomination for president, that his courtroom is not a campaign rally.

"I think this case is a disgrace," Trump said during questioning, adding that he considered it election interference because he was being kept on the stand. "I think the statements of financial condition are very good and in some cases very conservative."

Trump is the founder and former chairman and president of the Trump Organization, a company that includes, among other things, a large real estate portfolio.

He is being accused by state Attorney General Letitia James of being a part of a scheme that involved inflating or deflating the value of assets in order to secure better business, insurance and banking deals between 2011 and 2021. Trump's two older sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, are also defendants in the lawsuit. Judge Engoron has already ruled that Trump is liable of fraud.

James' legal team plans to call Ivanka Trump, who is not a defendant, to the stand on Wednesday as their last witness after taking a break Tuesday for Election Day. After that, they plan on closing their case.

"Justice will prevail," James said to reporters after Trump's testimony Monday.

"We have already been victorious," James added, noting that Engoron has ruled that there was fraud and that Trump is liable. "Now we look forward to. . .the remaining counts in our action against Donald Trump and his repeated and consistent fraud against the citizens of the great state of New York."

Trump's legal team will begin their defense next week, with the goal of being done by mid-December.

Trump punts responsibility onto others

Trump argued he was responsible for providing information to the accounting firm Mazars, which compiled the statements. While answering questions, Trump made jabs aimed at Engoron, including that the judge "always rules against" him.

Throughout his testimony, Trump argued that even the financial statements were conservative estimates of the value of his properties and that he relied on others to compile the statements.

Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media as he arrives for his civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court on Nov. 6, 2023 in New York City.
Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media as he arrives for his civil fraud trial at New York State Supreme Court on Nov. 6, 2023 in New York City.

This is the first time the former president is publicly called to the witness stand to answer questions about the allegations brought by the attorney general. Trump, who has attended several days of the trial over the past six weeks, was previously called up by presiding Judge Engoron to answer questions related to public comments thatwere later found to be in violation of a gag order.

Judge Engoron urges Trump's legal team to "control" their client

While answering questions related to the valuations of his properties in 2014, Trump made additional comments about the values of his properties, his expertise and what he perceived as the judge's bias.

"We got a speech," Engoron said following a question. "I beseech you to control him if you can."

Trump lawyers Christopher Kise and Alina Habba pushed back against calls to keep Trump's answers short, arguing that longer explanations are needed and the judge is here to listen to what Trump has to say.

"No, I am not here to listen to what he has to say. I am interested in hearing him answer questions," Engoron said to Kise, who was standing to engage with the judge. "Sit down!"

The exchange prompted Trump to reiterate that he believes this is a "very unfair trial."

Watching pending gag orders

Late last week, Engoron issued a second gag order — this time on Trump's legal team — after heated exchanges between the two parties during last week's testimonies. Trump's lawyers repeatedly accused Engoron's law clerk of being biased and criticized the judge for passing notes and having the clerk sit on the bench alongside him.

The second limited order filed on Friday blocks Trump's lawyers from making "further statements about internal and confidential communications" between him and his staff.

"Since the commencement of this bench trial, my chambers have been inundated with hundreds of harassing and threatening phone calls, voicemails, emails, letters and packages," Engoron wrote in the order. "The First Amendment right of defendants and their attorneys to comment on my staff is far and away outweighed by the need to protect them from threats and physical harm."

Two Trump brothers testified last week

Eric and Donald Jr. Trump are both executive vice presidents of the Trump Organization and held key leadership roles during the time their father was president. They were both questioned by the attorney general's legal team last week over their roles within the Trump Organization and their interactions with those putting together the annual statements of financial condition.

Donald Trump Jr. and his brother Eric Trump arrive at New York Supreme Court for former President Donald Trump's civil fraud trial on November 02, 2023
David Dee Delgado / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Donald Trump Jr. and his brother Eric Trump arrive at New York Supreme Court for former President Donald Trump's civil fraud trial on Thursday.

Eric Trump at first denied having "anything to do" with the statements of financial condition. But the court was shown email correspondence between Trump and then-controller of the Trump Organization Jeffrey McConney (now co-defendant), in which Trump was asked to review and provide input on the statements and properties in the statements. Trump told the court he relied on others to ensure the statements were accurate, even if the court documents show he was privy to the process.

His brother Trump Jr. had a similar testimony. When asked directly by Engoron if he had anything to do with statements of financial condition issued by the Trump Organization, Trump Jr. said: "No, I did not, your honor." He was also asked about his role as a trustee of the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust.

Trustees of the Trust were "responsible for" the statements, according to the documents shown in the trial.

Throughout his testimony, Trump Jr. said also he relied on others, such as co-defendant and former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Wesselberg, to vet the statements of financial condition.

McConney and Wisselberg have also already testified.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.