Judge deals Donald Trump a setback over fraud trial evidence

Former president Donald Trump (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, POOL)
Former president Donald Trump (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, POOL)

A judge has indicated he is not embracing Donald Trump’s view that most claims in his civil business fraud trial are too old for court, as the defence had hoped for after the trial’s first day.

With Trump voluntarily in court for a second day, Judge Arthur Engoron set the record straight about a comment the ex-president had claimed as an important victory at the trial in New York.

Judge Engoron had suggested on Monday that evidence about Trump’s 2011 financial statement might be beyond the legal time limit applicable to New York attorney general Letitia James’s lawsuit, which alleges that Trump and his business chronically lied about his wealth on financial statements given to banks, insurers and others.

The relevant statute of limitations bars claims related to activities before a date in 2014, and Trump’s legal team has argued that the time limit cuts off most of the case.

Justice Arthur Engoron
Justice Arthur Engoron (Shannon Stapleton/AP)

Judge Engoron said on Tuesday that “statutes of limitations bar claims, not evidence” and that in the trial’s early stage, he is inclined to give both sides leeway to connect older evidence to claims in the lawsuit.

“I want to emphasise: this trial is not an opportunity to relitigate what I have already decided,” Judge Engoron said. He ruled last week that all the claims were allowable under the statute of limitations.

A lawyer for Ms James’s office, Kevin Wallace, went on to suggest he was using the 2011 document to show that Trump’s financial statements were prepared in the same manner — giving him and his company the final say over the valuations that appeared — for at least a decade.

After Monday’s sometimes fiery opening statements, Tuesday’s court action centred on the more plodding task of going through years of Trump’s financial documents. An accountant who prepared his financial statements for years was giving evidence for a second day.

New York attorney general Letitia James
New York attorney general Letitia James (Seth Wenig/AP)

Trump and lawyers for both sides twice went behind closed doors during a lunch break, when journalists and others had been cleared out of the courtroom.

Then, without explanation, he deleted a disparaging message about Judge Engoron’s law clerk which had been posted on Trump’s Truth Social platform earlier on Tuesday.

Principal law clerk Allison Greenfield sits by the judge’s side and frequently confers with him during proceedings.

Trump denies any wrongdoing. The former president and current 2024 Republican front-runner claims that Ms James, a Democrat, is wielding the justice system as a political weapon to hobble his ongoing campaign.

Trump spent a full day on Monday as an angry spectator at the civil trial, using the waiting cameras in a courthouse hallway as a microphone for political messaging and his defence. His tone was more subdued as he arrived on Tuesday, but his message was no less emphatic.

He said during a court break that he thought the trial was “going very well”, adding that people “might reach different conclusions” about his financial position if they had more information.

“This case should be dismissed. This is not a case,” he said.

Trump Fraud Lawsuit
Donald Trump in court in New York (Dave Sanders/AP)

Ms James had already scored an early victory when Judge Engoron, a Democrat, ruled last week that Trump committed fraud by exaggerating the size of his penthouse at Trump Tower, claiming his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida was worth as much as 739 million dollars (£612 million) and putting similar oversized valuations on office towers, golf courses and other assets.

The non-jury trial concerns six remaining claims in the lawsuit and how much Trump might owe in penalties.

Ms James is seeking 250 million dollars (£207 million) and a ban on Trump doing business in New York. The judge has already ruled that some of Trump’s companies should be dissolved as punishment.

Trump’s lawyers said the financial statements were legitimate representations of the worth of unique luxury properties, made even more valuable because of their association with him.

The trial is expected to last into December.