NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s fury was on full display Monday during the first day of his civil fraud trial, where he lambasted the judge overseeing the case outside of the courtroom and stared daggers into the attorney general investigating business practices involving some of his most famed properties.
The former president’s frustration — and his counsels’ — was apparent throughout the day, encapsulated in stern glares and sometimes heated arguments between the parties and the judge. Trump also raged to the news media during a break in the hearing telling them that although he was not required to be there in person, he wanted to “watch this witch hunt myself.”
Trump entered the courtroom Monday morning with an austere face, making his way slowly to the defense table where his legal team was seated. At first, he went without glancing at New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), the state’s top prosecutor who brought the sprawling case against him.
Secret Service and police entered the room before Trump, moving to surround the three columns of wooden gallery benches filled with reporters. Eric Trump, Trump’s second son, sat parallel to James across the room.
But on his way out of the courtroom for a lunch break, the former president glared at James for several seconds, looking back twice in an apparent attempt to get her attention. Less than an hour later, he stood before rows of media cameras and railed against the proceeding, also suggesting that the judge overseeing the case should be disbarred.
“Let’s go to trial because 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 should be charged criminally for what he’s doing,” Trump told reporters just outside the judge’s courtroom. “He’s interfering with an election, and it’s a disgrace.”
Last week, Judge Arthur Engoron ruled that James’s office proved the crux of their case and found Trump liable for fraud.
The decision stripped some of Trump’s business licenses and raised the potential for him to lose control of some of his famed properties — the same ones that catapulted him to fame, television success and eventually the White House. They include properties in which he himself has a residence like Trump Tower in New York and Mar-a-Lago in Florida.
The judge, in his ruling, had rejected Trump’s effort to throw out the case, allowing six remaining elements to proceed to trial this week. The case is a bench trial, meaning there is no jury. Its outcome is at the sole discretion of Engoron, but Trump’s team will have opportunities to appeal.
On his Truth Social, Trump has also been targeting Engoron, berating him as “deranged,” “Trump hating,” “unhinged” and a “political hack judge.” Both of Trump’s adult sons have claimed the judge aims to “destroy” their family’s business empire.
Before opening statements, Engoron commented to the parties and the gallery that throughout the projected three-month trial, he hopes the only words he utters are “sustained, overruled and let’s take a 10-minute break,” signaling that he will not tolerate disruptions in the courtroom.
“I promise to do my best,” he said. “Despite my many attempts at humor, I take my job very seriously and know counsel of the parties do likewise.”
Throughout the day, defense attorneys also took aim at the judge, making testy assertions such as “I don’t think you’re an expert on accounting standards” and “you owe it to the defendants to listen to this evidence.”
The tensions began to bubble up during opening remarks, in which New York state prosecutors argued that Trump, the Trump Organization and his two adult sons engaged in “repeated, persistent illegal acts” while building their business empire.
They say the former president’s company engaged in decades of fraud, falsely inflating and deflating the value of its assets to receive lower taxes and better insurance coverage. Former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, former Trump Organization controller Jeffrey McConney and various business entities connected to Trump are also defendants in the case.
James’s office is asking for $250 million in financial penalties and a ban on Trump and his children from serving as officers or directors of New York companies.
But defense attorneys for the former president, his children and his businesses claimed that prosecutors were telling “stories,” not showing evidence. The evidence instead would establish that Trump has made “many billions” in his real estate business and owns “one of the most successful and highly recognized brands in the world,” Trump attorney Chris Kise said.
Alina Habba, a legal spokesperson for Trump who is representing some defendants in the case, targeted James’s motivation for bringing the case in her opening remarks, suggesting that upon taking office, James made it her mission to “go to work, get Trump and go home.”
Habba and another defense attorney — Clifford Robert, who is representing Trump’s adult sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr. — also criticized Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and “fixer” who is a key witness in the government’s case.
Robert described Cohen as “a guy who lies to everyone” and a convicted felon, opining that the purported lack of credibility of the government’s “linchpin” gives a “picture of what their case is about.”
Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison in 2018 for tax evasion, making false statements and campaign finance violations. He also separately pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. He was released from prison in 2021.
In a deposition clip shown by prosecutors in opening remarks, Cohen suggested that Trump wanted to inflate his net worth in order to be “higher up on the Forbes list,” a reference to the wealth magazine’s list of the world’s richest people. He and Weisselberg were tasked with inflating Trump’s assets in order to “obtain the number that Mr. Trump wanted,” Cohen said in the clip.
When James announced the lawsuit against Trump last September, she attributed the start of her office’s investigation into him and his businesses to Cohen’s 2019 testimony before Congress, where he claimed the former president significantly overstated his wealth before he took office.
Weisselberg, the former Trump Organization chief financial officer; Trump’s adult sons; Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump; and the former president himself are also listed as government witnesses in court filings. The defense lists 128 witnesses, including Trump and his sons.
The trial is expected to last until Dec. 22 and is the start of a long legal road for Trump, who faces several other civil cases and 91 combined criminal charges across four cases.
Two federal civil cases involving Trump are scheduled to head to trial in January, and his first criminal trial — the federal case over his efforts to subvert the 2020 presidential election — is set for March 4.
The New York hush money trial is set to begin March 25, and the federal case over Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents is scheduled to head to trial on May 20. A fourth criminal case in Georgia over Trump’s actions after the 2020 election has not yet scheduled a trial date.