Donald Trump’s last-minute legal challenge threatens to disrupt New York fraud trial against him

A last-minute legal challenge by Donald Trump’s lawyers could disrupt a trial scheduled for next month in the New York attorney general’s business fraud lawsuit against the former president and his company.

FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. President Donald Trump departs from Trump Tower to give a deposition to New York Attorney General Letitia James who sued Trump and his Trump Organization, in New York City, U.S., April 13, 2023. REUTERS/Mike Segar/File Photo(REUTERS)

A state appeals court judge on Thursday ordered a potential postponement of the non-jury trial, scheduled to start October 2, after Trump’s lawyers filed a lawsuit accusing the trial judge, Arthur Engoron, of repeatedly abusing his authority.

Justice David Friedman, a judge on the state’s intermediate appellate court, granted an interim stay of the trial and ordered the full appeals court to consider the lawsuit on an expedited basis.

The court indicated it would issue a decision the week of September 25, meaning the trial could still start on schedule depending on how it rules.

Among the issues raised by Trump’s lawyers were Engoron’s terse refusal to grant their recent request for a three-week trial delay, which he ruled as “completely without merit,” and lingering uncertainty about the trial’s scope because he has yet to comply with a June appeals court’s order that he determine which claims in the fraud lawsuit are barred by the statute of limitations.

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Other proceedings in Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit against Trump and the Trump Organisation will proceed as scheduled, Friedman said. They include oral arguments slated for Sept. 22 on requests from James’ office and Trump’s lawyers that Engoron decides on some or all of the case before the trial starts.

Engoron declined to comment through a court spokesperson.

In a statement, James said: “We are confident in our case and will be ready for trial.”

James’ lawsuit alleges Trump defrauded banks, insurers, and others with annual financial statements that inflated the value of his skyscrapers, golf courses, and other assets and boosted his net worth by as much as USD 3.6 billion. Her lawsuit seeks USD 250 million in penalties and a ban on Trump doing business in New York.

Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination in next year’s presidential election, has denied wrongdoing.

In sworn testimony given for the lawsuit in April, Trump said he didn’t think his financial statements would be taken seriously because they have a disclaimer that says they shouldn’t be trusted. He told James, a Democrat, “You don’t have a case and you should drop this case.”

“Do you know the banks were fully paid? Do you know the banks made a lot of money?” Trump testified. “Do you know I don’t believe I ever got even a default notice, and even during COVID, the banks were all paid? And yet you’re suing on behalf of banks, I guess. It’s crazy. The whole case is crazy.”

The lawsuit against Engoron, filed under a provision of state law known as Article 78, is Trump’s latest attack on judges presiding over his many legal cases.

On Monday, Trump’s lawyers asked the federal judge presiding over his election subversion case in Washington to recuse herself, saying US District Judge Tanya Chutkan ‘s past public statements about him and his connection to the January 6, 2021, riot at the US Capitol call into question whether she can be fair. That request is pending.

Before that, Trump also sought to remove the judge in his Manhattan hush-money criminal case. Trump’s lawyers argued Judge Juan Manuel Merchan is biased because he’s given money to Democrats and his daughter is a party consultant, but Merchan last month rejected their request to recuse himself, saying he is certain of his “ability to be fair and impartial.”

Trump has shown enmity for Engoron in the past, lashing out at him on social media as “vicious, biased, and mean” after a series of unfavorable rulings from the judge, including a contempt order that cost Trump USD 110,000 for not turning over evidence to James’ office in a timely fashion.

Trump’s lawyers fought unsuccessfully last year to have James’ lawsuit moved from Engoron’s courtroom to the court’s Commercial Division, which is set up to handle complex corporate litigation.

Engoron has said the trial could take up to three months.

Trump’s lawyers have asked Engoron to grant summary judgment dismissing the case entirely before the trial starts. They argue that many of the lawsuit’s allegations are barred by the statute of limitations and that James has no standing to sue because the entities Trump supposedly defrauded “have never complained, and indeed have profited from their business dealings” with him.

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James’ office has asked Engoron to grant summary judgment in its favour on one of seven claims in her lawsuit — that Trump and his company committed fraud.

To rule, Engoron needs only to answer two questions, James’ office argued: whether Trump’s annual financial statements were false or misleading, and whether he and the Trump Organization used those statements while conducting business transactions.

Trump is not expected to testify in court if the case goes to trial, but video recordings of his depositions could be played.

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