What’s at stake in Trump’s fraud trial – and other civil cases
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It was his presence in the courtroom to begin with that may have been more remarkable – and indicative of the lawsuit’s core challenge to Mr. Trump’s identity as a successful businessperson. Mr. Trump’s biggest legal problems remain criminal cases on allegations of election interference and illegal retention of classified documents. But he also faces a looming series of civil lawsuits such as the New York fraud trial, which could cost him hundreds of millions of dollars, threaten the stability of his business empire, and cast a harsh light on some of his personal behavior.
If nothing else, the civil trials add even more court dates to Mr. Trump’s already crammed legal agenda. Mr. Trump and his companies face the daunting logistical challenge of organizing and paying for legal representation in serious cases for months, if not years, to come.
“This is like a hypothetical that a lot of law professors would reject. Imagine a person with this many pending legal actions,” says Daniel Urman, a professor of law and public policy at Northeastern University in Boston.
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Current and upcoming civil court cases
Civil court cases are different from criminal counterparts in a number of ways. The punishment for losing a civil suit is not a prison sentence, as can be the case with criminal prosecutions. It is generally a monetary payment or a court injunction against engaging in a particular activity. In civil suits, plaintiffs establish their claims by a preponderance of the evidence, instead of the “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of a criminal trial.
The New York trial that started Monday is a civil case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James that centers on charges that Trump businesses knowingly puffed up the estimated value of holdings such as Trump Tower to get favorable treatment from banks. Judge Engoron estimates that given the length of witness lists, it could last until just before Christmas.
On Friday, Mr. Trump’s lawyers asked an appeals court to halt proceedings in the New York trial while they fight a ruling in the case by Judge Engoron that could lead to the dissolving of some Trump companies and the loss of prized real estate assets.
Two further civil cases involving Mr. Trump are scheduled to go to trial in New York in January 2024. One is a battery and defamation suit against him from writer E. Jean Carroll, who won a $5 million judgment against Mr. Trump in May after he called her sexual assault allegations a “complete con job.”
Ms. Carroll’s upcoming suit against the former president stems from remarks made during a different period of time. A judge has already ruled those remarks were also libelous. That means the only issue in January will be how much more money Mr. Trump will be required to pay.
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Then late in the month, a class-action lawsuit alleging that the former president and his children fraudulently convinced consumers to invest in get-rich-quick schemes is scheduled to begin in federal court. The suit charges that the Trumps received secret payments for promoting a number of business entities as legitimate opportunities when in reality they were scams that harmed unsophisticated investors.
Beyond that, a number of individuals, including some Democratic members of Congress and police officers, have filed civil lawsuits against Mr. Trump for injuries and damage allegedly incurred during the Jan. 6 riot. Many of these have been combined into a single suit, Blassingame v. Trump, named for Capitol Police officer and plaintiff James Blassingame.
A trial in Blassingame will likely not be scheduled until after the resolution of criminal cases against Mr. Trump for election interference filed by federal special counsel Jack Smith and Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis.
Currently the federal election case is scheduled to start on March 4, 2024. The sprawling Georgia case, with 18 defendants besides Mr. Trump, officially starts on Oct. 23 of this year with the trial of two Trump lawyers who have requested expedited proceedings. Mr. Trump himself will not be there. His Georgia trial has yet to be scheduled. But even in absentia, he and his central role in the alleged conspiracy to overturn Georgia’s presidential vote may loom over the Atlanta courtroom.
Trump’s behavior in court
Mr. Trump’s 2 1/2-day attendance at his New York fraud trial may be a preview of how he deals with his criminal and important civil trials to come.
In court, the former president for the most part sat quietly, though he appeared agitated at times, particularly when prosecutors criticized Trump organization valuations of particular properties such as his Trump Tower triplex. Out of court, he spoke vehemently to reporters about what he claims is a political prosecution by a biased judge.
On Tuesday Mr. Trump received a sharp rebuke from the legal system for his sometimes incendiary social media language. After he posted a disparaging and untrue post on Truth Social about Judge Engoron’s clerk, the judge ordered him to remove it and then forbade all parties in the proceedings from posting, emailing, or speaking publicly about any members of the judge’s staff.
“Failure to abide by this … will result in serious sanctions,” said Judge Engoron in court, while Mr. Trump looked straight ahead.
This was a gag order, but a narrowly tailored one, said some experts.
“Engoron is striking a balance – ordering Trump not to attack court personnel but allowing him to speak [about Attorney General Merrick Garland] & judge himself,” wrote Brookings Institution senior fellow Norm Eisen on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.
Mr. Trump’s appearance in New York may have reflected the way the charges call into question his carefully developed image as a successful businessperson and real estate billionaire. In addition, the penalties of the trial could be enormously expensive, with a possible fine of up to $250 million, and destructive to his existing organization. Judge Engoron has already ordered the cancellation of legal certificates that have allowed Mr. Trump and his family to do business in the state and asked for the appointment of a receiver to oversee the dissolution of some Trump entities. The upshot is that the former president could lose control over highly visible New York assets, including Trump Tower.
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Outside the courtroom, Mr. Trump has angrily insisted that Judge Engoron was grossly undervaluing his Mar-a-Lago property by listing it as worth some $18 million, for instance. Given its association with the Trump brand and its quality, it is in fact worth over $1 billion, the former president said, calling it “arguably the most valuable residential property in the country.”
The January civil trial on Mr. Trump’s alleged participation in get-rich-quick schemes may draw similar ire, given its subject. Both it and the New York fraud trial portray the former president as a cheat – not the shrewd mogul he portrayed on “The Apprentice.”
But Mr. Trump’s appearance at the beginning of his New York trial undeniably drew substantial media attention, with live telecasts and continual updates on print media websites. That may be another aspect of Mr. Trump’s thinking – if trials take you off the campaign trail, bring the campaign trail to you.
During his break-session press conferences, Mr. Trump continued to insist to large groups of reporters that his legal predicament is one large witch hunt, all related to the witch hunts of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation and his two House of Representatives impeachments.
Similar appearances outside future trial sites might well draw similar media scrums.
“He’s good ratings. He’s catnip to the press,” says Professor Urman.