Andrea Bernstein
The New York Times

How Trump Turns His Courtroom Losses Into Wins

In New York on Friday, a State Supreme Court judge, Arthur Engoron, ordered Donald Trump and his company to pay the staggering sum of $355 million for lying, over and over, with stunning audacity about the value of his assets. The ruling comes just weeks after a jury, in a defamation case brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll, ordered Trump to pay $83.3 million — also for lying. That’s on top of two previous jury findings: Trump’s company was found guilty of 17 felonies, including fraud, and an earlier Carroll civil jury ordered him to pay $5 million for sexual assault and another act of defamation. Trump is appealing all the verdicts.
That a candidate nearly certain to win the Republican presidential nomination carries the stain of having been found by judge and jury to lie fluently is stunning enough. But even more so is the continuity between how, in the past months, Trump has practiced exactly what he’s on trial for right in front of us, in the courtrooms, in a way that once again has benefited his brand. Even after Trump had begun to lose and face real financial and business consequences, he was working out a way to benefit, or at least try to benefit, from the verdicts and from the entire process of being placed on trial.
Shortly after Engoron’s ruling hit the docket, one of Trump’s lawyers, Alina Habba, said he would appeal. “This verdict is a manifest injustice — plain and simple,” she said. “It is the culmination of a multiyear, politically fueled witch hunt that was designed to ‘take down Donald Trump.’” She added, “Countless hours of testimony proved that there was no wrongdoing, no crime and no victim.”
I’ve now watched two cases where Trump sat at the defense table, day after day, through testimony that was excruciatingly boring, in the business fraud trial, and just plain excruciating, in the Carroll case.
In the mornings before Trump’s business fraud trial, journalists lined up for hours outside the civil courthouse. A sizable number stopped at the courtroom hallway, creating a crowded press scrum, to catch a few minutes of Trump’s time on the way in or out. For these press opportunities, the erstwhile TV star set up his shot. He usually stood behind a barricade — conjuring up prison bars — outside the door of the courtroom and spoke to supporters, saying some version of “I should be right now in Iowa and New Hampshire, in South Carolina. I shouldn’t be sitting in a courthouse.”
He had no obligation to be there, and the barricades were for his protection. But the picture of Trump behind the barricades ran repeatedly, on news sites all over the world. His fund-raising emails mentioned the court appearances; he talked about them on the campaign trail.
In 2016, when he first ran for president, Trump described his campaign as self-funded. When I spoke to voters in states like Iowa and Ohio that year, this was among the top reasons they thought they could trust him: He wasn’t being bought. But that self-funding, it recently emerged in the civil fraud trial, was also a misdirection: He had actually freed up the cash for this 2016 campaign by lying about his assets to get artificially low interest rates from Deutsche Bank, the New York attorney general, Letitia James, said.
Trump’s success as a developer, as a television star and in his first campaign for president was largely based on getting people to believe he was far richer than he was. “I mean, I became president because of the brand, OK? I think it’s the hottest brand in the world.”
Trump has continued to raise money from his lies: The House Jan. 6 select committee found that after lying about the 2020 election results, he and the Republican Party had raised huge sums for his political action committees, which were recently reported to have spent roughly $50 million in 2023 on his legal defenses. Disseminating his mug shot from the Fulton County Jail raised millions for the Trump campaign.
During the second Carroll trial, her lawyers played a video Trump made after the first trial, the one that found him liable for sexual abuse. In the video he again called her a liar and a fraud, the very words a judge and three juries have connected to him and his company. “That’s the truth,” I could hear Trump saying from the defense table as he approvingly viewed the clip. He used that video, too, to raise money for his presidential campaign.
Trump repeatedly broke the fourth wall in his trials, taunting the judges, telling Justice Engoron he was part of a partisan agenda and, when Judge Lewis Kaplan of US District Court in Manhattan admonished him after his audible outbursts in front of the jury that Trump “can’t control” himself, Trump shot back, “Neither can you.”
Other defendants would most likely not get away with this, but when Trump leaves the courtroom to call the system “rigged” and judges “Trump hating,” he reinforces doubt in a portion of the population about one of the few remaining institutions in our democracy with any semblance of public trust. The results in the Republican primary race and the reluctance of other Republicans to talk about the court verdicts reinforce that doubt.
In the final hours of Trump’s second trial for defaming Carroll, her lawyers played a videotaped pretrial deposition from the business fraud trial that featured Trump talking about the value of his assets. He could get $1.5 billion for Mar-a-Lago, he said, and $2.5 billion for his golf club in Doral, Fla. “I believe we have substantially in excess of $400 million in cash, which is a lot for a developer,” he added. “Developers usually don’t have cash. They have assets, not cash.” Trump then described the cash as “400 plus and going up very substantially every month.” Justice Engoron’s ruling calls all that into doubt, but the jury knew none of that.
“He doesn’t care about the law or truth but does care about money, and your decision on punitive damages is the only hope that he stops,” Carroll’s lawyer, Roberta Kaplan, said in her closing argument, adding that he should pay “lots and lots of money.”
It’s true, Trump does care about money. Obviously. Being ordered to pay hundreds of millions of dollars means something. And though he doesn’t have as much money as he’d like you to believe, he certainly has assets he can use to pay off the legal judgments. But that’s almost beside the point. In his ruling, Justice Engoron wrote that the defendant’s “complete lack of contrition and remorse borders on pathological.” In others, this verdict might induce shame. In Donald Trump, we can watch how he uses it to build his money, power and influence.

The New York Times