“How are you?” Justice Arthur F. Engoron asked Trump defense lawyer Alina Habba when she walked up to the lectern Monday morning.
“Well, we’ve been doing this for three years,” Habba responded pointedly. “I just want to remind everyone that Ms. James said she was going to come into the Attorney General's Office and ‘get Trump.’”
The day didn’t get much better from there.
The start of Trump’s trial in New York was defined by the sorts of testy and performative exchanges that the former president—and his lawyers—have become notorious for. Trump’s legal arguments quickly devolved into back-and-forths between the judge and his lawyers, with Trump’s attorneys repeatedly promoting talking points that have failed time and again.
Habba delivered a number of fiery soliloquies, saying the case presents “a very dangerous time in our country and in this state” and calling the AG’s brief Monday morning remarks on the courthouse steps “part of the shakeup.”
Habba referred to the former president as “the president” and invoked “the American people,” peppering her speech with comments that sounded more fitting for a Fox News TV appearance than a courtroom argument—flair that has become her trademark litigating style.
The judge, visibly unimpressed, reminded her that he and the state’s First Department appellate court had already rejected the “witch hunt” argument, referring to his own February 2022 ruling in which he found that the AG’s investigation was reasonable—even expected.
“For the [Office of the Attorney General] not to have investigated the original respondents... would have been a blatant dereliction of duty,” Engoron wrote then. “The impetus for the investigation was not personal animus, not racial or ethnic or other discrimination, not campaign promises, but was sworn congressional testimony by former Trump associate Michael Cohen that respondents were ‘cooking the books.’”
Notably, Habba’s attempts to use the “witch hunt” tale also failed in federal court, where a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of New York dismissed Trump’s lawsuit against the AG last year.
But Habba’s prodding opened the door for Trump’s other lawyers to turn up the heat on the judge.
Christopher Kise and Clifford Roberts took turns poking at the judge’s decision last week to essentially hand the AG a victory by declaring—before the start of the trial—that state investigators had already proven that Trump, two of his sons, and their companies engaged in “persistent and repeated fraud.” That robust ruling concluded that the Trump family routinely inflated the value of real estate assets to score bank loans. Engoron ordered the famous real estate company be taken out of their control and into the hands of a court-appointed receiver.
Although the AG’s team still has to prove six other counts in their $250 million lawsuit to win what they seek—draining the Trumps’ bank accounts and kicking them out of the New York business world—defense lawyers portrayed the judge’s decision as unfair and premature. Kise pointed to the expected testimony later in the trial from their witnesses, whom he said would definitively show that the court fundamentally misunderstood that any “discrepancy” in property assessments didn’t really matter.
His argument is essentially that there’s nothing to see here; banks got paid, and the deals worked out.
"You owe it to the defendants to listen to this evidence," Kise said, following up with a rare jab at the judge himself. “I don't think you're an expert on accounting standards… we have experts you haven't heard from.”
Meanwhile, Habba and Roberts called into question Cohen’s integrity, with Habba insulting the disbarred lawyer who’s become a state witness as a “convicted felon” and “a liar.”
But the arguments seemed to be too little too late, as the Trump team had already laid out their case to the judge in recent weeks—one that Engoron didn’t find compelling in the slightest.
Engoron already reviewed financial documents and determined that Trump did, in fact, lie about his personal wealth incessantly. In his courtroom, it’s a settled matter that Trump overstated the value of his properties, like the oceanside Mar-a-Lago mansion in Florida. And Engoron found that Trump’s lies helped him secure bank loans for various development projects, like his Doral Golf Club in the Miami suburbs.
At times, the normally controlled courtroom atmosphere became something of a full-on debate between the judge and Trump’s three lawyers, with Habba propping up Trump’s ego as he sat at the defense table. She called the Trump Organization “that beautiful company,” borrowing her client’s typical manner of speech.
“The value is what someone is willing to pay. The Trump properties are Mona Lisa properties,” Habba said. “Anyone who plays golf knows, Doral is one of the best golf courses in the country. I've had the pleasure of playing there.”
She also raised eyebrows when she touted how she comes from a real estate family that understands the curious and often confounding ways properties are valued by a chaotic market.
“Mar-a-Lago can sell for a billion dollars,” she declared.
But the judge pushed back on the way Trump came up with property values, citing Trump’s deposition earlier this year in which he reasoned that estimated values he listed on 2014 personal financial statements were accurate because they eventually increased nearly a decade later. It’s a line of reasoning that defies logic—but the Trump team keeps pushing anyway.
“You can’t look at a property 10 years later and say, ‘Now look what it’s worth.’ This is current market value,” Engoron said.
But the Trump family’s lawyers weren’t done trying to revive defeated arguments. When the AG’s lawyers called their first witness—Donald Bender, Trump's long-time hired accountant at the outside firm Mazars USA—Kise tried to shut down any attempt to have him discuss real estate deals that took place nearly a decade ago. It was part of the defense team’s ongoing attempts to whittle down the AG’s case by arguing that nearly all of the business deals in question are simply too old to litigate.
As he did several times during the hearing, Kise reminded Engoron that a vigorous appellate fight is coming. But Engoron seemed unmoved.
“Let's not get into a whole discussion about statute of limitations, et cetera,” Engoron responded, noting the fact that he’s already determined Trump broke the law each time he filed annual personal financial statements that vastly overstated his wealth to maintain the original bank loans all the way up until 2021.
Although the visibly angry Trump at one point slowly walked by the seated AG and gave her a menacing look on his way out the door, he remained quiet in the courtroom. But he had choice words for Engoron, taking to his own Truth Social media network to call him a “highly political, Trump Hating Judge.”And he kept up the charged attacks when he stepped into the courthouse hallway.
“This is a judge that should be disbarred,” Trump said. “This is a judge that should be out of office. This is a judge that some people say could be charged criminally for what he's doing. He’s interfering with an election—and it’s a disgrace.”