Trump is turning his $250 million fraud trial into a presidential campaign event
- Donald Trump has attacked the civil fraud case against him as political.
- He showed up to court Monday with his 2024 campaign staffers in tow.
Former President — and 2024 Republican presidential frontrunner — Donald Trump has long complained that the legal cases against him are political.
The New York Attorney General's $250 million civil fraud trial that began Monday morning, he says, is a "witch hunt."
Showing up to court in lower Manhattan, Trump sought to make the case appear as political as possible.
Speaking to journalists outside the courtroom, Trump attacked not only New York Attorney General Letitia James, an elected Democrat, but Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron, who's presiding over the case.
"This guy's a highly partisan person and we can't let this stuff happen," Trump said. "This is a judge that should be disbarred, this is a judge that should be out of office. This is a judge that some people say could be charged criminally for what he's doing. He's interfering with an election."
Trump's campaign sent emails and text messages asking supporters for donations. There, he also called the proceedings a "SHAM trial" and a form of "Election Interference."
"Democrats have forced me to stand trial in a frivolous lawsuit rather than be on the campaign trail," he said.
Trump appears to want to keep the case political, rather than leave it to his lawyers to argue the legal merits of the attorney general's case.
He entered the courtroom surrounded by not just his lawyers, but his political staff. His spokesperson Steven Cheung and advisor Jason Miller sat to the side, watching opening statements.
One of Trump's lawyers, Alina Habba, lambasted New York Attorney General Letitia James, an elected Democrat. In her opening statement, Habba said James could have brought the case years earlier, and that she ultimately brought the lawsuit for political reasons. James, she pointed out, ran for office partially on her record of going after the Trump family.
The attorney general's lawsuit alleges that Trump, Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and two other Trump Organization executives are liable for fraud for misrepresenting the values of the company's property in financial statements submitted to banks for loans. They're seeking to disgorge the company of its allegedly ill-gotten profits, ban the group from running a company in New York ever again, and have the judge issue $250 million in penalties.
Trump has had a lot of court dates this year. With four criminal cases and other civil litigation on the docket, he has many more coming up, giving him ample opportunities to use courthouses as rally sites while court officers handle the security.
Kevin C. Wallace, a lawyer at the attorney general's office, showed deposition videos where Trump and his children shirked responsibility for those financial statements. He said the videos demonstrated they were acting with intent to defraud banks.
Habba, in response, said the snippets of video misrepresented her clients and were further evidence of the plaintiff's political motivations.
"I wasn't planning to speak today until I saw the attorney general speak outside and until Mr. Wallace's presentation," Habba said.
In her own statement on the courthouse steps, before the trial began, James said Trump should not be exempt from New York state's financial laws just because he was a former president.
"No matter how rich or powerful you are, there are not two sets of laws for people in this country," she said. "The rule of law must apply equally to everyone, and it is my responsibility to make sure that it does."
Trump's campaign aides didn't return to court after lunch
Cheung and Miller sat on the side of the courtroom gallery, watching the fireworks. But at other times, they appeared bored and distracted. Engoron generally forbade cellphones from the room, and the two Trump campaign staffers appeared fidgety. Cheung, at some points, seemed to close his eyes.
This is far from the first time Trump and his attorneys have claimed that the cases against him are politically motivated. But judges have often found the opposite: That he has filed lawsuits for improperly political purposes.
Earlier this year, a federal judge in Florida tossed one of Trump's lawsuits against the Democratic National Committee, Hillary Clinton, former FBI director James Comey, and a smattering of other people and entities that Trump harbors grudges against. The lawsuit, US District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks, wrote, was part of a "pattern of misusing the courts to serve political purposes."
"This case should never have been brought," he wrote. "Its inadequacy as a legal claim was evident from the start. No reasonable lawyer would have filed it. Intended for a political purpose, none of the counts of the amended complaint stated a cognizable legal claim."
Middlebrooks sanctioned Trump and his lawyers in that case. When they asked him to reconsider, he refused. Middlebrooks wrote in a ruling last month that Trump has continued to try to use the courts for political purposes, often carrying over language from his rallies and using the cases to raise money for his political action committees. (Trump has used funds from those PACs to pay his lawyers.)
"Mr. Trump is a prolific and sophisticated litigant who is repeatedly using the courts to seek revenge on political adversaries," Middlebrooks wrote. "This case is straight out of that playbook."
Trump returned to the courtroom after a lunch break. He had told another judge in Florida that he would attend the trial this week, which enabled him to evade — for now — a deposition in a civil lawsuit against Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer and ex-Trump Organization executive.
The excitement, at that point, was largely over.
The first witness in the case was called to the stand: Donald Bender, a now-retired accountant who helped prepare the Trump Organization's financial statements. He talked about the minutiae of New York accounting practices.
Cheung and Miller didn't return to the courtroom.
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