Judge says Donald Trump can't speak during closing arguments in New York civil fraud trial

By Lauren del Valle, Kristen Holmes, Katelyn Polantz, Kaitlan Collins and Kara Scannell for CNN

Judge Arthur Engoron said Wednesday he does not expect Donald Trump to speak during closing arguments in the $370 million New York civil fraud trial against Trump.

In a letter to attorneys for Trump and New York Attorney General Letitia James just after noon Wednesday, Engoron said that Trump hasn't agreed to conditions he set should the former president wish to give a statement.

"Not having heard from you by the third extended deadline (noon today), I assume that Mr. Trump will not agree to the reasonable, lawful limits I have imposed as a precondition to giving a closing statement above and beyond those given by his attorneys, and that, therefore, he will not be speaking in court tomorrow," Engoron wrote.

Email correspondence shows the parties have been discussing the possibility of Trump participating in the closing arguments since at least last week.

Trump and his team have used his court appearances to claim election interference by Joe Biden, paint his legal woes as political persecution, and draw media attention away from his Republican rivals who have struggled to chip away at his significant lead in the polls.

Trump is not facing criminal charges in the civil fraud case, but the claims against the former president hit him personally, as the New York attorney general is seeking $370 million in damages and to bar Trump from doing business in the state.

The New York attorney general alleges that Trump, his two adult sons and his company defrauded banks and insurance companies by inflating the value of the former president's assets in order to obtain more favorable rates. Engoron has already ruled that Trump was liable for fraud; the judge is now considering damages and six additional claims in the bench trial.

The attorney general's office opposed Trump's plan to speak during the defense closing argument but also acknowledged it was up to the judge's discretion.

"Allowing Mr. Trump to present closing argument will invite more speeches that will 'unduly disrupt' the proceedings," Andrew Amer wrote in an email last Thursday.

Trump has clashed repeatedly with Engoron throughout the 11-week trial. The judge put a gag order in place barring comments about his staff the opening week of the trial after Trump posted attacks on social media about the judge's clerk. Engoron fined Trump twice for violating the gag order – including hauling him onto the witness stand to answer questions about comments he made outside the courtroom when he complained about the "a person who is very partisan sitting alongside" the judge.

'Take it or leave it. Now or never'

Engoron offered Trump the opportunity to speak in his own defense closing argument but said the former president must agree to preset conditions that would limit what he can and cannot say. He would not be allowed to campaign, the judge said.

Engoron also said if Trump violated the gag order, he'd fine him and remove him from court.

"Thus, in my sole discretion, I will consent to let Mr. Trump make a closing argument if, and only if, through counsel by 1/9/2024, and by himself, personally, on the record, just before he speaks, he agrees to limit his subjects to what is permissible in a counsel's closing argument, that is, commentary on the relevant, material facts that are in evidence, and application of the relevant law to those facts," Engoron wrote in an email last week.

"He may not seek to introduce new evidence. He may not 'testify.' He may not comment on irrelevant matters," Engoron wrote. "In particular, and without limitation, he may not deliver a campaign speech, and he may not impugn myself, my staff, plaintiff, plaintiff's staff, or the New York State Court System, none of which is relevant to this case, and all of which, except commenting on my staff, can be done, and is being done, in other forums."

Former US President Donald Trump departs for a break in the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization, at the New York State Supreme Court in New York City on December 7, 2023.
Former US President Donald Trump departs for a break in the civil fraud trial against the Trump Organization, at the New York State Supreme Court in New York City on December 7, 2023. Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

Trump's attorney Chris Kise said Trump would not agree to such terms and went back and forth with Engoron minutes before the deadline, email records show.

"He cannot agree (nor would i recommend he do so) to the proposed preconditions and prior restraints," Kise wrote in an email response.

Engoron pushed back in a subsequent email Tuesday, writing, "Your and your client's rejection of the reasonable, normal limits I am imposing on any argument by Mr. Trump, which are the same limits that the law imposes on any person making a closing argument, completely justifies the need to impose them."

Engoron extended the deadline to agree to the terms more than once and gave Trump's team a final chance just before noon Wednesday.

"I won't debate this yet again. Take it or leave it. Now or never. You have until noon, seven minutes from now. I WILL NOT GRANT ANY FURTHER EXTENSIONS," Engoron wrote to Kise.

Political atmospherics

The closing arguments are coming two days after Trump's lackluster appearance in a Washington, DC, courtroom yielded less fanfare than the former president has grown accustomed to while dropping in and out of the courthouse in New York.

Trump's advisers had warned him that the federal courthouse would not give him an opportunity to seize the spotlight. He stayed at his private club in Virginia, traveled by motorcade to Washington, where there was no aerial coverage because of flight restrictions in the nation's capital, drove into a garage and entered the courtroom with no cameras or microphones.

Trump appeared on Tuesday at the US Court of Appeals for oral arguments over his presidential immunity claims. While Trump can choose to attend the proceedings, his appearance also was meant to be a distraction from his GOP rivals six days ahead of the Iowa caucuses.

While Trump insisted on attending the hearing, he decided to hold a last-minute press event afterward, causing US Secret Service and his team to scramble for him to deliver remarks at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.

"It's not like we want him to be going to court. We didn't ask for that. But we're playing the hand we've been dealt," one senior adviser told CNN.

Last month, Trump and his lawyers insisted that Trump would be called to testify as the final witness in the New York civil fraud case, only to reverse course. And last spring, Trump told reporters in Ireland that he was leaving his trip and would "probably attend" the civil trial over E. Jean Carroll's rape allegation in New York to "confront" the allegations. He did not attend.

No live TV for closing arguments

Meanwhile, Engoron has denied a coalition of media organization's request to televise the closing arguments.

In an order emailed to the parties Wednesday, Engoron wrote, "I hereby deny your application to stream the proceedings live. Although I (and I hope others) consider myself a strong believer in press access and a transparency, this particular case has, as I'm sure you are aware, presented very serious safety issues."

Cameras will still be allowed to take video and photos of Trump and the attorneys before closing arguments begin. They will also still be permitted in the hallways where Trump frequently addresses the media to criticize the judge, the New York attorney general and President Joe Biden.