NEW YORK — For years, Donald Trump has responded to investigations and governmental scrutiny with a mixture of bravado and combativeness, often lobbing his rhetoric across rally stages and social media.
On Monday, though, the former president brought that bombast to a courtroom where government officials questioned him at length in a public setting.
Testifying in a $250 million civil trial where he and his business are accused of a years-long fraud, Trump defended his company, lashed out at the case and his inquisitors and clashed with the judge.
“This is not a political rally,” New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron said, urging one of Trump’s attorneys to control him. “This is a courtroom.”
New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) last year sued Trump, his adult sons and their namesake company, accusing them of dramatically inflating the values of real estate properties to get better financial terms with banks and insurers. Engoron already ruled before the trial that Trump and his company broadly committed fraud. He is hearing the case without a jury and will determine whether specific illegal acts occurred in the process and decide any potential penalties.
Trump, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination next year, has repeatedly assailed James’s case, denied any wrongdoing and insisted that he is being targeted for political reasons. Testifying for hours Monday, he delivered often extended, meandering remarks, praising his business acumen and slamming the judge.
“He ruled against me without knowing anything about me. He ruled against me and said I was a fraud before he knew anything about me.” Trump testified, raising his voice. “The fraud is on the court, not on me.”
James is seeking to have Trump and his business pay at least $250 million in penalties and wants them blocked from doing business in New York state. Trump is also separately facing a whirlwind of legal peril, with criminal cases pending against him in New York, Florida, Georgia and Washington, D.C. He has said repeatedly that all of these cases are meant to damage him electorally.
James’s lawsuit has plainly irritated Trump, who has long touted himself as a successful businessman. Trump has been under no obligation to attend the trial since it began last month except for his testimony, but has shown up in person several times and criticized James and the lawsuit.
In her lawsuit, James alleged that Trump and his executives knowingly misstated the values of their assets along with other data points, such as the square footage of properties. James and her team say Trump and the company inflated these figures in financial statements submitted to banks and insurance companies over multiple years.
Trump’s side has argued no fraud took place and said real estate valuations are subjective. His attorneys also argued that lenders did not rely on these statements.
Before Trump’s testimony began, James told reporters she was “certain that he will engage in name-calling and taunts’ on the stand. She also pointed to a core issue in the trial itself, saying that Trump has “repeatedly and consistently misrepresented and inflated the value of his assets.”
Trump also spoke to reporters before going into the courtroom, criticizing James again and insisting he was facing “political attack ads by the Biden administration.”
Trump’s adult sons, who are also defendants in the case, testified last week in the trial, and both sought to distance themselves from the financial statements, saying they trusted the company accountants who assembled them, using information provided by the company.
They are expected to be called to testify again by their own attorneys later in the case. Ivanka Trump, one of their sisters, who was dismissed as a defendant over the summer, is scheduled to testify Wednesday.
During his testimony Monday, the senior Trump visibly cycled through a range of expressions and behaviors. He alternately appeared boastful and frustrated, proud and irritated, bored and distracted. Trump’s tangents and remarks often hewed to by-now familiar topics. He talked about his “luxurious’ properties, described “how good a company I’ve built’ and repeatedly defended his net worth.
While questioned by Kevin Wallace, an attorney with James’s office, Trump said his net worth “was far greater than the financial statements so I don’t know what you’re getting at but go ahead.” At another point, he maintained that his wealth was higher than what was reported in the financial statements because his accountants did not factor in his “brand value.”
“I became president because of my brand,” Trump testified.
Trump has answered questions in the case before, albeit not publicly. In April, he was deposed by James’s office, and he said that his financial statements come with disclaimers saying other people might come to different conclusions about the value of his assets.
During his deposition and on the witness stand Monday, Trump argued that disclaimers included by his accountants were a signal to lenders that they should do their own evaluations.
On Monday, Trump repeatedly said that even if the statements were problematic, he was insulated from blame.
“I think the statements of financial condition were very good, were actually somewhat conservative and in some cases very conservative,” he said. But regardless, Trump said, he’s “totally protected by the disclaimer clause” that warned banks “to go out and do your due diligence and to do [their] own analysis.”
His testimony also included courtroom insults aimed at James, such as a remark accusing her of “watching every little move” he made on the stand.
Trump’s appearance on the witness stand also included numerous rebukes from Engoron, beginning within 10 minutes of his testimony starting. Trump quickly started complaining about the Democratic law enforcement officials who have investigated him.
Engoron told Trump to refrain from making extraneous comments and “just answer the questions, no speeches.’ Trump grumbled at one point that Engoron was “ruling against me, because he always rules against me.’
Following another diatribe from Trump, Engoron encouraged Christopher Kise, one of his attorneys, to “have a talk” with Trump about his behavior. “Mr. Kise, can you control your client?” he asked.
Kise pushed back, though, saying that the “former and again soon-to-be commander in chief” understood the rules of a courtroom and did not need further instruction.
Engoron later suggested he might remove Trump from the stand if he could not answer questions directly. He then raised his voice while addressing Trump’s attorneys, who had stood up to argue that Trump should be able to make his case without restriction.
Kise repeatedly called it a “unique situation’ and asked for Trump to have leeway in speaking. His voice booming through the courtroom, Engoron told them to sit down.
Soon after, Trump said from the stand: “This is a very unfair trial. Very, very. And I hope the public is watching.”
Engoron also seemed to needle Trump on Monday. Trump had complained about the judge’s pretrial ruling, and Engoron said Trump should “read my opinion again’ before adding: “Or for the first time, perhaps.”
“You’re wrong in the opinion,” Trump responded.
It is rare for a defendant to criticize a judge from the witness stand, said Chris Mattei, an attorney from the firm Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder. Mattei represented the parents of children slain in the Sandy Hook massacre in a defamation lawsuit they filed against Alex Jones. In that case, Jones also repeatedly belittled the judge and the case outside the courthouse and online.
Jones and Trump were both “playing to an audience,” Mattei said. ‘Their objectives are different than a normal defendant. A normal defendant would be doing everything he or she could do to avoid the legal penalty.”
Most judges aren’t likely to be influenced either way by such attacks, Mattei said. Judges, he said, “really are required to set aside any personal feelings they may have” and do their jobs.
“The jousting with the judge should not help his legal case,” said New York University law professor Marcel Kahan. “It may hurt it if the judge feels that Trump is not answering the questions or not answering them truthfully. Whether it helps him politically is of course a different issue.”
Trump has already run afoul of Engoron, who last month issued a limited gag order blocking him from commenting on the judge’s staff. That came after Trump posted on social media about the judge’s law clerk and included a photograph of the person.
Engoron has twice fined Trump for violating his order for a total of $15,000. On Oct. 25, he unexpectedly summoned Trump to the witness stand to explain some of his comments. Trump was on the stand for a few minutes and Engoron promptly said he did not find him credible and fined him $10,000.
Trump finished his testimony on Monday afternoon, and his attorneys did not cross-examine him.
After Trump’s testimony, James spoke to reporters and said Trump “rambled” and “hurled insults.”
“But we expected that,” she said. “At the end of the day, the documentary evidence demonstrated that in fact, he falsely inflated his assets to basically enrich himself and his family. He continued to persistently engage in fraud. The numbers don’t lie.”
Kise also spoke to reporters, saying Trump “told everyone the facts,’ while Trump dismissed the case as “a scam” and defended his business practices after leaving the courtroom.
“Everything we did was absolutely right,” Trump said.
Berman and O’Connell reported from Washington. Maegan Vazquez in Washington contributed to this report.