Judge says Donald Trump won’t give own closing argument at civil fraud trial after disputing rules

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Former President Donald Trump speaks to the media at a Washington hotel, Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024.
AP Photo/Susan Walsh


Donald Trump won’t make his own closing argument after all in his New York civil business fraud trial after his lawyers objected to the judge’s insistence that the former president stick to “relevant” matters.

Judge Arthur Engoron rescinded his conditional permission for the unusual plan on Wednesday, a day ahead of closing arguments. He had said that Trump would have to abide by the rules that apply to attorneys’ closing arguments and couldn’t assail the characters of his adversaries, the judge or others in the court system.

Trump’s legal team said those limitations unfairly muzzled him. After the outcome Wednesday, Trump attorney Alina Habba responded: “Is anyone surprised anymore?”

The trial could cost Trump hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties and strip him of his ability to do business in New York. He’s fighting allegations that his net worth was inflated by billions of dollars on financial statements that helped him secure business loans and insurance.

The former president and current Republican 2024 front-runner denies any wrongdoing, and he has lambasted the case as a “hoax” and a political attack on him. The judge is a Democrat, as is New York Attorney General Letitia James, who brought the lawsuit.

The trial came after Engoron decided, in a pretrial ruling, that Trump had engaged in fraud for years. The judge ordered at that point that a receiver take control of some of the ex-president’s properties, but an appeals court has put that order on hold.

Justice Arthur Engoron presides over Donald Trump Jr.’s testimony in his family’s civil fraud case at the New York State Supreme Court on Nov. 13, 2023 in New York.Erin Schaff/New York Times via AP, Pool

Engoron will decide the verdict in the trial, which concerns remaining claims of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.

It’s extremely uncommon for people who have lawyers to give their own closing arguments. But Trump’s lawyers had signaled privately to the judge last week that the ex-president planned to deliver a summation personally, in addition to arguments from his legal team. James’ office objected, saying that the proposal would effectively amount to testimony without cross-examination.

In an email exchange that happened over recent days and was filed in court Wednesday, Engoron initially approved the request, saying he was “inclined to let everyone have his or her say.”

But he said Trump’s remarks would have to stay within the boundaries for attorneys’ closing arguments: “commentary on the relevant, material facts that are in evidence, and application of the relevant law to those facts.”

Trump would not be allowed to introduce new evidence, “comment on irrelevant matters” or “deliver a campaign speech” — or impugn the judge, his staff, the attorney general, her lawyers or the court system, the judge wrote.

Trump attorney Christopher Kise responded that those limitations were “fraught with ambiguities, creating the substantial likelihood for misinterpretation or unintended violation.” Engoron said that they were “reasonable, normal limits” and would allow for comments on the attorney general’s arguments but not personal attacks.

Kise termed the restrictions “very unfair.”

“You are not allowing President Trump, who has been wrongfully demeaned and belittled by an out of control, politically motivated attorney general, to speak about the things that must be spoken about,” the attorney wrote.

“I won’t debate this yet again. Take it or leave it,” the judge shot back, with an all-caps addition saying he wouldn’t push back an already extended deadline for a response.

After not hearing from Trump’s lawyers by the noon Wednesday deadline, Engoron wrote that he assumed Trump was not agreeing to the ground rules and therefore would not be speaking.

Earlier in the exchange, the judge also denied Kise’s request to postpone closing arguments until Jan. 29 because of the death Tuesday of Trump’s mother-in-law, Amalija Knavs. The judge expressed condolences but said he was sticking to the scheduled date, citing the security and logistics required for Trump’s planned visit to court.

Taking on a role usually performed by an attorney is dicey for any defendant, and summations are a last chance to try to show how the evidence from the trial has or hasn’t met legal requirements for proving the case.

A closing argument isn’t constrained to the question-and-answer format of testimony. But “it’s absolutely not a free-for-all,” said Christine Bartholomew, a University at Buffalo School of Law professor who specializes in civil procedure.

“Unless you’re legally trained … the chance of a misstep is really, really high,” she said, adding that it’s “extra-risky” when a judge has already taken issue with a defendant’s conduct during the case.

Trump ran afoul of Engoron after making a disparaging social media post about the judge’s law clerk on the second day of the trial in October. The post included a false insinuation about the clerk’s personal life.

Engoron then imposed a limited gag order, barring all participants in the trial from commenting about court staffers. The judge later fined Trump a total of $15,000, saying he’d repeatedly violated the order. Trump’s defense team is appealing it.

During the recent email exchange about Trump’s potential summation, Engoron warned Trump’s lawyers that if the former president violated the gag order, he’d be removed from the courtroom and fined at least $50,000.

Trump testified in November, sparring verbally with the judge and state lawyers as he defended himself and his real estate empire. He later considered a second round of testimony but, after teasing his return appearance, he changed course and said he had “nothing more to say.”

Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak contributed.