Letitia James Accuses Trump of Trying To ‘Sow Chaos’ as Former President Notches an Appellate Win

The appeals courts will ultimately decide whether the former president’s business empire will be sold off for parts.

Angela Weiss/pool via AP
President Trump sits between lawyers Christopher Kise and Alina Habba during his civil fraud trial at the state supreme court building at New York, October 4, 2023. Angela Weiss/pool via AP

President Trump’s escalating efforts to pause his New York fraud trial — even after the crucial verdict was already rendered in pre-trial judgment — suggest that for the embattled tycoon, the potential end of his real estate empire is snapping into distressing focus.  

Friday afternoon saw Mr. Trump score a significant win, as New York’s First Department — an appeals court — issued an interim stay to temporarily block Judge Arthur Engoron’s cancellation of the Trump Organization’s business certificates, an order which would entail the liquidation of the former president’s business empire. The jurists, though, demurred from halting the trial altogether, as Mr. Trump had requested.

The trial at 60 Centre St., at Judge Arthur Engoron’s courtroom, has been full of sound and fury on the part of the former president, but its true significance could come only when it reaches appeal. That process began even as Mr. Trump sat tightlipped inside the courtroom and voluble outside of it.  

Mr. Trump is facing a Manhattan judge who has handed down a devastating ruling against him and an attorney general, Letitia James, who, the night she was elected, promised to shine “a bright light into every dark corner” of his “real estate dealings.” In a legal hole, the former president is already turning his focus to the appeals courts that will ultimately decide whether his business empire will be sold off for parts.

That filing that resulted in the stay came after Mr. Trump had already jetted off to Mar-a-Lago, prompting Ms. James to note in a letter to an appellate tribunal that his attorneys “​​waited until after Mr. Trump decided to stop attending the trial” to secure a pause. She adds that Mr. Trump has “sought to interrupt trial midcourse in a highly disruptive manner, and this Court should deny an interim stay on that basis alone.”

Ms. James accuses Mr. Trump of attempting to “sow chaos” via a “cascade of delays” that would, in turn, throw his entire legal calendar — four criminal cases, in addition to this civil one — into disorder. Mr. Trump writes that Judge Engoron’s grant of summary judgment to Ms. James was “unprecedented” and will do “severe and irreparable harm” to “innocent nonparties and employees who depend on the affected entities for their livelihoods.” 

This week’s trial is only tasked with determining how much of the $250 million in penalties that Ms. James has requested Mr. Trump will be required to pay. Judge Engoron’s earlier ruling found that Mr. Trump “persistently” defrauded banks and lenders. It ordered the dissolution of his New York business certificates and the liquidation of much of his business.    

Mr. Trump has previously called for a review of “each and every part” of Judge Engoron’s summary judgment. Now, he calls the penalties he faces “unauthorized” and “overbroad relief without proper factual or legal predicate.” Ms. James, who on Wednesday declared that “the Donald Trump show is over,” responds that he “can continue to try to delay and stall, but the evidence is clear, and our case is strong. We are confident justice will prevail.”

Mr. Trump could yet testify before Judge Engoron, but as long as the jurist’s finding of liability holds — it has only been paused, not overturned — the real estate tycoon’s New York empire remains under the cloud of extinction; it all amounts to high-stakes bookkeeping. Mr. Trump, though, faces the very real threat of jail should he violate the judge’s gag order barring him from discussing court personnel, issued after Mr. Trump referred to a clerk as Senator Schumer’s “girlfriend.”

Should Mr. Trump eventually face an adverse decision on the merits before the jurists of the First Division, he would turn to the Court of Appeals, which, in New York’s unusual nomenclature, is the state’s highest tribunal. 

For an appeal to the Supreme Court, Mr. Trump would be required to surface a federal or constitutional issue, which his defense has not attempted — at least thus far. His latest appeal to the appellate division follows one last week that argued that this week’s trial date should be delayed. That was rejected via a brief order.

One issue that could surface on appeal is the statute of limitations that govern Ms. James’s accusations of fraud. This question appears blurry. The appellate division has already ruled that activities before 2014 are barred, an apparent rebuke to Ms. James’s case, which relies on financial statements that stretch back to 2011. 

Judge Engoron, though, has allowed material from 2011 into the courtroom, reasoning, “Statutes of limitations bar claims, not evidence.” This means that he allowed more antique evidence into court if it was in turn related to more current representations. In practice, this means that he found all of Ms. James’s claims against Mr. Trump to be viable.    

The judge told the parties at the week’s start that “this trial is not an opportunity to relitigate what I have already decided,” meaning that Mr. Trump’s real estate portfolio is indelibly marred with fraud. Now, the fate of Trump Tower and other signature New York properties could depend on whether that decision stands up to appellate scrutiny.

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This article has been updated from the bulldog.


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