The One Audience Trump Can’t Hoodwink

From a New York Times column by Jesse Wegman headlined “The One Audience Trump Can’t Hoodwink”:

The witness stand in Justice Arthur Engoron’s courtroom at 60 Centre Street, in Lower Manhattan, is an ordinary wood-paneled box off to the side of the bench. But for Donald Trump, who is on trial for fraudulently overvaluing his New York real estate assets, it might as well be a cage of kryptonite.

When he was in it, as he was for much of the day on Monday, the former president was deprived of what may be his most effective superpower: his ability to speak without consequence, without factual basis, without shame and, often, without end.

That signature rambling filibuster has propelled Mr. Trump through every venture of his life, from real estate to reality television to the American presidency. He relies on it to control the room, to manipulate the crowd and to avoid addressing any topic he doesn’t want to. He says it all, loudly and repeatedly, and never answers the real question.

That doesn’t work in court, where the judge is in charge, the rules of evidence are in effect and the witness has sworn to tell the whole truth. Justice Engoron illustrated this over and over on Monday during Mr. Trump’s testimony, which deliberately meandered from the questions the prosecution was asking in order to blunt their effect.

“This is not a political rally,” the judge said. “I don’t want editorializing. We’ll be here forever.”

At another point, as Mr. Trump was musing about Scotland’s oil reserves, the judge had enough. “Irrelevant, irrelevant,” he said. “Answer the question.”

Five words! That’s all it took to shut up Mr. Trump. Call it magic, or call it the rules of civil procedure. The point is that every word you say in court matters, and they can also count against you if you’re not careful. This is serious business: People’s reputations, fortunes and even their lives are on the line. Specifically, the Trump Organization could lose its ability to do business in New York, and Mr. Trump faces a penalty of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Despite spending countless hours in and around courtrooms during his unusually litigious life, Mr. Trump still seems not to fully grasp this truth. Or, as with all other rules that bind the rest of us, he appears to think it doesn’t apply to him. On Monday he fought valiantly to control the narrative — claiming that he was being treated unfairly, that his net worth is far higher than anyone realizes and that Letitia James, the New York attorney general, who brought the fraud case, is a “political hack.” Justice Engoron thwarted him at nearly every turn, forcing him to answer, or at least respond to, the state lawyer’s direct questions.

But in the moments he was able to seize the floor, Mr. Trump could not help himself, compulsively admitting that he was involved in approving the fraudulent financial statements submitted to banks — something his lawyers were no doubt hoping he wouldn’t say. Justice Engoron is not likely to forget those remarks when issuing his verdict.

The forgetting was done by Mr. Trump, whose excuse for not vetting his company’s financial statements more closely in 2021 was that he was busy “keeping our country safe” as president. “Just to clarify the record, you weren’t president in 2021, correct?” the state’s lawyer asked. Mr. Trump acknowledged that he was not.

Whatever the outcome of the trial (and the judge has already found as a matter of fact that the Trump properties were fraudulently overvalued), even this hint of accountability — “answer the question” — comes as a breath of fresh air to a country that has endured the past eight years of Mr. Trump’s consequence-free romp through American government and society.

Outside the courtroom, Mr. Trump’s lawyers appeared flustered by their inability to help their fabulist client run the show or to manage him. “The only thing they want are facts that are bad for Trump,” one lawyer, Alina Habba, said to the assembled media.

Well, yes. That’s how litigation works: The state makes its best case using facts and arguments that are bad for the defendant, while the defendant’s lawyers do their best to poke holes in that case.

At one point, Mr. Trump called the trial “silly” because, he claimed, no victims were involved. He seems to feel it’s fine to break New York’s financial laws if the banks do not complain. In his mind, he is the only victim, the perennial quarry of a ruthless Democratic establishment.

Rather than interminably complain, Mr. Trump might consider using this trial as practice. Over the coming months, he is scheduled to face four more trials — and unlike the current one, the charges are not civil. If he thinks it’s unfair to be fined millions of dollars or barred from doing business, wait until he finds out how it feels to be a convicted criminal.

Jesse Wegman is a member of the Times editorial board, where he has written about the Supreme Court and national legal affairs since 2013. He is the author of “Let the People Pick the President: The Case for Abolishing the Electoral College.”

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