Trump is silent in court. His outbursts outside it get attention – but may have serious consequences

The former president is feeding a content mill of counterprogramming in a preview of his responses to the upcoming criminal trials against him. Alex Woodward reports from the Manhattan court where Trump is appearing this week

Wednesday 04 October 2023 02:47 BST
Donald Trump leaves a Manhattan court room on 3 October.
Donald Trump leaves a Manhattan court room on 3 October. (Getty Images)

He didn’t even have to be there. He wasn’t asked to speak, nor was he required to make any statements in the courtroom at any point. Instead, he lashed out about the case on social media and held makeshift press conferences in the hallway outside, broadcasting to a small army of news cameras to insult the judge and his chief clerk.

When he returned to a Manhattan courtroom between breaks, walking to the defence table with his face largely directed at the floor in a permanent scowl, Donald Trump sat quietly, his shoulders lurching forward, and spoke only in whispers into the ears of his attorneys.

And when New York Superior Court Judge Arthur Engoron reprimanded the former president for the personal attacks directed at his clerk, forced him to delete a post on his Truth Social, and slapped him with a gag order to block him from any other comments about the court’s staff, all Mr Trump could do was sit and listen.

In last week’s unexpected ruling days before a civil trial stemming from a $250m lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James against the former president’s business empire, Judge Engoron eviscerated what he called a “fantasy world” of frivolous arguments in his defence.

In a preview of his upcoming criminal trials in four different jurisdictions, Mr Trump has created his own “fantasy world” of triumph over his political opponents in his latest courtroom battle, in telling his supporters one thing while reality is another.

The former president will now face “serious sanctions” for any other comments about members of the court in his fraud trial, a warning that other court officials are now considering imposing against him after his repeat attacks against the prosecutors and judges overseeing his cases, and the wave of abuse and threats they have faced in return.

A poorly timed promotional email from the social media platform, sent hours after Mr Trump was punished in court, announced that “Trump fights back against NY fraud case on Truth Social”.

“Despite appearing in the courthouse, President Trump has been frequently using Truth Social to comment on the civil fraud case being tried against him in New York,” according to the email.

The former president appeared in court for roughly nine hours across the first two days of the trial, a remarkable spectacle in which a former president and frontrunner for the Republican nomination for president in 2024 sat in relative silence just feet away from the woman suing him, while his son and co-defendant Eric Trump sat in the row behind him.

Just six months ago, before his appearance in another New York City courtroom, Mr Trump called on his supporters to protest across the US and warned “death and destruction” was coming should he ever be charged with a crime.

Three more criminal indictments later, his campaign has used his Georgia mugshot and court appearances to raise tens of millions of dollars, flooding inboxes and social media with fundraising statements depicting him as a victim of a weaponised justice system while threatening “retribution” against his perceived political enemies, if elected.

In several fundraising messages from his campaign over the course of the first two days of his trial, he has told supporters that “Democrats” have “ripped my civil right straight out of my hands”, are imposing a “corporate death penalty” against him, and trying to “financially ruin” him because he threatens to win the presidency in 2024.

His campaign also blasted out so-called opposition research about Ms James and Judge Engoron during the first days of the trial, while painting the multiple cases against him as one giant conspiracy to prevent him from running for president, and feeding a content mill of counterprogramming to his supporters who have tuned out the evidence against him.

After the first day of a trial that is expected to last until Christmas, the former president declared “80 per cent” of the case against him is likely to be tossed out, thanks to Judge Engoron’s statements from the bench about the statute of limitations. The first thing the judge did the next morning was clarify what he meant.

“Every use of a false financial statement in business starts the statute of limitations running again,” Judge Engoron said. “I understand that the defendants strongly disagree with this and will appeal on those grounds.”

The judge already determined that a trial wasn’t necessary to prove that Mr Trump fraudulently inflated his assets in statements of financial condition submitted to banks and insurers for favourable rates and other benefits.

He also said that the trial is not an opportunity to relitigate what has already been decided; the judge ruled that Mr Trump is liable for fraud, and the trial instead will determine what punishments, if any, Mr Trump, his adult sons and his associates will face, and whether Ms James will succeed on six other counts she alleges in her lawsuit, including insurance fraud and conspiracy.

Donald Trump appears in court with his attorney Christopher Kise on 3 October (Getty Images)

Mr Trump’s attorneys have repeatedly argued that there was no default, lenders never lost money, and “no bank was affected, no bank was hurt,” as Mr Trump said moments before the start of the trial. In essence, there were no victims, attorney Christopher Kise told the judge.

He also has argued that a disclaimer included in his allegedly fraudulent financial statements essentially warned lenders and others that “the statement is worthless” and “means nothing” without further review, as Mr Trump claimed in an earlier deposition in the case.

Those clauses, scrutinised by counsel with Ms James’s office, don’t use the words “worthless” or “useless” or any similar words, the judge said in his ruling.

Hours after appearing in court, Mr Trump returned to his Truth Social to post a short black-and-white video of himself entering a car set to Metallica’s “Enter Sandman”. In another post, he told his supporters it is “so unfair” how he is “unconstitutionally” tried in a case for “election interference purposes” without a jury, which his attorneys have never requested at any point.

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