Trump un-gagged could prime his fraud trial for more chaos

For six weeks, lawyers with New York Attorney General Letitia James put more than two dozen witnesses on the stand and introduced dozens of documents to connect Donald Trump and his business empire to a decade of fraud allegations.

When the attorney general handed the case to his team of lawyers on 13 November, their first witness was Donald Trump Jr, who spent several hours testifying to his father’s “artistry” and “sexy” properties.

Two days later, Mr Trump’s attorneys demanded a mistrial. They lost. His attorneys also sued the judge overseeing the case, hoping to strike down a gag order that has blocked the former president from attacking court staff. They won.

Meanwhile, other members of Mr Trump’s legal team – a stable of attorneys defending him in four criminal cases and lawsuits across the country – are preparing for a separate courtroom battle to revoke a different gag order that prevents him from attacking witnesses and others in case accusing him of a conspiracy to overturn 2020 presidential election results.

In a filing to a federal judge, Mr Trump’s attorneys argued that the gag order blocks his “core political speech” – including his abilities to spread false claims about the chief court clerk in his fraud trial, in a courthouse that has been inundated with threatening messages.

The cases underscore Mr Trump’s growing entanglements among his many criminal cases and lawsuits and repeat warnings from prosecutors that the leading candidate for the 2024 Republican nomination is growing increasingly volatile.

Mr Trump continues to cast himself as a victim of political prosecution, insisting that the multiple lawsuits and grand jury indictments against him are part of a Democratic conspiracy to prevent him from reaching the White House.

His rage joins an ongoing narrative spread across campaign rally speeches; pugilistic statements on his Truth Social; campaign fundraising messages; defensive statements from his surrogates in Congress; court filings from attorneys to federal court judges; statements from his attorneys to the press and to the judge overseeing his fraud trial; and in his own remarks in- and outside the New York courtroom where his family business is under a level of scrutiny that threatens the narrative that built up his political persona.

Judge Arthur Engoron’s pretrial ruling in the case already determined that Mr Trump, his adult sons and their chief associates in his Trump Organization umbrella defrauded banks and investors with grossly inflated valuations of his net worth and assets over a decade.

Mr Trump signed off on those fraudulent statements of financial condition – the documents at the heart of the case – when they were handed to banks and insurers for favourable loans and rates that enriched his real estate empire, according to the attorney general’s lawsuit.

The attorney general’s case reached its climax with testimony from former Trump Organization figures, including his former attorney Michael Cohen, and Mr Trump’s children Donald Jr, Eric and Ivanka Trump, as well as the former president himself, whose meandering testimony repeatedly insulted the case, the judge, Ms James, and one of her lawyers who questioned him.

When the attorney general rested her case, Mr Trump claimed he “won”. A few days later, he shared a call for her arrest.

Ms James and the judge are fair targets under the gag order Judge Engoron issued to protect members of the court from his targeted rhetoric. Still, Mr Trump violated the order, twice, and comments from his attorneys directed at his chief clerk in the middle of a hearing prompted him to expand the order to include them, too.

In his written order earlier this month, the judge criticised his attorneys’ “on the record, repeated, inappropriate remarks” about his chief clerk Allison Greenfield, whom they have been “falsely accusing” of “bias against them and improperly influencing the ongoing bench trial.”

“As I have stated on the record, seemingly to no avail, my law clerks are public servants who are performing their jobs in the manner in which I request,” the judge wrote.

The judge also shot down “unpersuasive” First Amendment arguments, pointing to threats of political violence that have surrounded Mr Trump’s criminal and civil cases since his first indictment earlier this year.

“The threat of, and actual, violence resulting from heated political rhetoric is well-documented,” he wrote.

The judge said his chambers “have been inundated with hundreds of harassing and threatening phone calls, voicemails, emails, letters, and packages.”

“The First Amendment right of defendants and their attorneys to comment on my staff is far and away outweighed by the need to protect them from threats and physical harm,” he added.

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