Two days after dominating the New Hampshire GOP’s presidential primary, all but assuring himself a third straight nomination and rematch with President Joe Biden, Donald Trump returned to a Manhattan federal courthouse.
The former president took the stand for what was ultimately less than five minutes – including multiple admonishments from Judge Lewis Kaplan – as he seeks to avoid a multimillion-dollar jury verdict against him in the civil defamation trial.
The trial centers on Trump’s 2019 comments about E. Jean Carroll, the writer who last year won a civil verdict over her claim Trump sexually assaulted her in the mid-1990s and then defamed her when she first publicly accused him. Carroll is seeking at least $10 million.
Closing arguments are scheduled for Friday morning and the jury of nine could have the case by lunchtime.
Here’s what to know from Thursday:
Trump (finally and briefly) testifies
After days of back and forth teases over whether he would appear, Trump was on the witness stand for mere minutes on Thursday.
The defense’s questions were effectively pre-cleared by the judge, as Trump was not allowed to re-litigate the verdict from last year.
Trump attorney Alina Habba first asked her client whether he stood by his testimony in a previous deposition denying Carroll’s allegations.
“100% yes,” he replied.
Habba then asked, “Did you deny the allegation because Ms. Carroll made an accusation.”
“That’s exactly right, yes I did.” Trump replied. “She said something that I considered a false accusation – totally false.”
Judge Kaplan cut him off, instructing the court to strike everything Trump said after his initial confirmation.
“Did you ever instruct anyone to hurt Ms. Carroll in your statements?” Habba asked in her third and final question.
Trump responded, “No I just wanted to defend myself, my family and frankly the presidency.”
The cross-examination, by Carroll lawyer Roberta Kaplan, was even shorter. And with that, the drama ended.
Trump plays the victim
Perhaps more interesting than anything he said in court – before or during his testimony – was Trump’s decision to show up in the first place. He was not bound by the court to speak at or attend the trial, at which cameras are not allowed, but did so repeatedly.
His appearance on Thursday amounted to a campaign stop and another opportunity, in Trump’s estimation, to advance the narrative that he is the victim of a broad conspiracy designed to block his return to office and damage his personal and business reputation.
“I never met the woman. I don’t know who the woman is. I never met this woman,” an agitated Trump said, interrupting his lawyer, before he took the stand. Judge Kaplan shushed him before the jury re-entered the room.
But the questions of whether he sexually assaulted and defamed Carroll were not up for debate in this court – the previous jury had already found in her favor – and Trump’s comments were only heard by the judge, lawyers and, perhaps most importantly, reporters there to cover the hearing. The jury had not been called in yet.
It was not the first time, and surely not the last, that Trump used the courtroom as a political platform. During a separate civil fraud trial in New York earlier this month, he gave a speech attacking the judge and the attorney general, a Democrat, who brought the suit.
Team Trump attacks Carroll
Habba sought to undermine Carroll’s claims that her safety was at risk as a result of the former president’s disparaging statements about her.
While questioning Carroll’s longtime friend Carol Martin, a former television reporter, on Thursday, Habba pointed to texts in which Carroll wrote to Martin that she had no security concerns at the time.
Habba asked Martin whether she felt that Carroll enjoyed the attention that came with her lawsuits against Trump. Martin replied that yes, it was true “at different times in early years.”
Martin also told the court she regretted earlier text messages, calling herself “hyperbolic,” in which she said Carroll’s “narcissism had run amok” and, in an exchange with her daughter wrote that Carroll was “like a drug addict and the drug is herself.”
The text messages are key to the defense’s strategy of trying to show that Carroll has exaggerated her claims. In the first trial, Martin said she was having issues with Carroll at the time she sent the messages and later felt bad about it.
Martin testified on Carroll’s behalf in the first trial, recalling how her friend confided in her about an altercation with Trump shortly after it happened, telling her, “You won’t believe what happened to me the other night” before repeatedly saying, “Trump attacked me.” The judge did not allow any testimony from Martin about that or Carroll’s rape allegations against Trump based on pretrial rulings.
Carroll’s lawyers play the tapes
Carroll’s attorneys also played videos for the jury from a recent Trump media appearance and a deposition from this case in which Trump attests to his personal wealth and another where the former president disparaged Carroll and denied knowing the writer.
One video came from an April 13, 2023, deposition in his separate civil fraud case over Trump’s alleged inflation of the value of his New York properties and other assets. In another deposition video from this case, one of Carroll’s attorneys asks Trump whether it was fair to call him a “real estate tycoon” in the 1990s, to which he answered yes.
Carroll’s lawyers also played clips from earlier depositions and media statements by Trump in which he disparages Carroll as “sick,” threatens to sue her attorney, and rants about the “hoaxes” that have been played on him.
“This is a hoax,” Trump said during a deposition in this case from October 2022. “This ridiculous situation that we’re doing right here. She’s a liar and she’s a sick person, in my opinion, really sick.”
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