Donald Trump is in court this week as he defends a $250 million civil fraud lawsuit. But he doesn’t really seem to be trying too hard to win. Instead, the former president—perhaps aware that the case against him appears to be overwhelming—is seeking to derail the proceedings in any way he can.
Through the years of legal wrangling leading up to the trial that started Monday, Trump and his attorneys have put up little in the way of a compelling defense. For the most part, they haven’t attempted to challenge the basic facts. They aren’t doing much to dispute the allegation that the Trump Organization misrepresented the value of its properties to potential lenders and insurers—they’ve just repeatedly argued that it doesn’t matter (because banks didn’t lose money) or that New York Attorney General Letitia James shouldn’t be poking around on the subject at all.
Notably, none of the arguments made by Trump’s attorneys over the past two years have added up to a denial of what happened. And all of them have been roundly rejected by New York judge Arthur Engoron. The judge was affable and willing to indulge Trumpian legal theatrics when the case began, but he now seems thoroughly fed up.
Engoron has repeatedly rebuffed Trump’s legal theories, but Trump’s lawyers keep trying to make the same arguments—and Engoron has grown increasingly irritated. He has encouraged them to try other avenues, asked them probing questions to change the subject, and finally issued warnings that it was time to address the facts of the case at hand. And last month, when both sides asked Engoron for summary judgement—essentially, a declaration that the evidence so obviously favors one side that a trial isn’t even necessary—James’ office filed thousands of pages of documentary evidence and legal arguments making the case for fraud. For its part, Trump’s legal team submitted the same old complaints.
So, it’s not really a surprise that Engoron declared Trump had indeed committed fraud—Trump’s legal team offered him little alternative. But Engoron went even further. He ordered Trump’s New York businesses to close within 10 days (on Wednesday, Trump filed an appeal of that decision) and said the trial would handle only a string of smaller questions and determine how much Trump should be penalized for his fraud. And Engoron, now thoroughly sick of the repeated attempts to make arguments he had already rejected, fined each of Trump’s attorneys $7,500.
This all gave Trump an enormous opportunity to declare he had been wronged. He took to social media to rail against Engoron, and his campaign team flooded inboxes with fundraising requests in the name of defending Trump from a partisan attack.
When the trial opened on Monday, it appeared that Trump was trying to have the trial he wanted, not the trial he was getting. His legal team offered opening arguments that were, not surprisingly, the same ones already rejected by Engoron and largely the same as the ones they had recently been fined for making. Engoron let it go, and Trump spent the first three days of the trial glowering at James, groaning loudly when witnesses said things he didn’t like, and shaking his head angrily.
Outside the courtroom, Trump took to declaring things that weren’t true. When Trump emerged from court on Monday, he cheerfully announced that Engoron had decided that “80 percent” of the case against him would be thrown out because it related to matters that fell outside of the statute of limitations.
“We very much appreciate the judge’s decision today—or his statement today—on the statute of limitations, which is a very big thing,” Trump told reporters.
That launched a flurry of social media posts and conservative news headlines, all celebrating Trump’s legal victory and James’ apparent stumble on something as basic as the statute of limitations.
But it just wasn’t true. On Tuesday morning, Engoron told the court that he wanted it to be clearly known that he had not dismissed anything, and he reiterated the fact that he had already ruled on the matter previously. That, however, did not stop Trump’s team from loudly objecting (based on the same statute of limitations argument) anytime anything that had happened prior to 2014 was discussed in court. Engoron overruled all of those objections and told Trump’s attorneys they could stop making the objections because their argument had been noted—they did not.
Back outside the courtroom, Trump reverted to his standby arguments about James, who is Black, supposedly being racist, about banks getting paid back, and about the AG’s jurisdiction not applying. It seemed like he was pursuing a different court case entirely.
As the week went on, it became increasingly apparent that Trump was trying to be as disruptive as possible. First, he attacked Engoron’s clerk—both in a rant outside the courtroom and on his social media platform, Truth Social. Linking to her personal Instagram account, he falsely suggested she had a romantic relationship with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Engoron ordered the post removed (Trump took it down) and issued a limited gag order on both Trump and James, prohibiting either from publicly criticizing court staff.
It’s a move that Engoron had to make, but one that he must have known would give Trump yet another opportunity to attack the court’s credibility. And it hasn’t stopped Trump from continuing to go after both Engoron and James—allowed under the gag rule, but still disruptive. Trump’s behavior, like his insistence on repeating the same already-rejected legal arguments, seems counter-productive if he hopes to prevail on the merits.
Engoron, after all, is the person who will decide Trump’s fate here—there is no jury. Trump’s legal team never even requested a jury, which hasn’t stopped Trump from complaining about it.
On Wednesday, Trump’s attorneys got their first crack at witnesses that James’ office had called to testify. In their cross-examination, the former president’s team insisted on a strategy of tedium—going over documents line-by-line, in the most repetitive and time-consuming series of questions possible. Engoron warned Trump’s lawyers to hurry up, and when they protested that they felt they had to question the witnesses this way to create a record that an appeals court could examine, Engoron countered that it wasn’t necessary—that they’d already made their points sufficiently.
Trump’s attorneys kept at it, in defiance of the judge. They argued with him and ignored him. Engoron tried to remind them that they weren’t doing themselves any favors.
“There’s no jury here,” he said—reportedly eliciting an angry arm flap from Trump. “Who are you talking to—me, the press or the audience?”
That might get to the bottom of it. Trump’s actions clearly aren’t meant to win a favorable verdict, and they don’t seem likely to help his chances of winning on appeal, either. But he knows he has an audience, and while everyone is watching, he’s determined to make everything—the case, the courtroom, the judge’s reputation—as awful and difficult as possible. He wants to break the case, not beat it.