The former president was no match for a sitting judge.
For the four years Donald Trump was president, a sizable percentage of the voting public indulged in the fantasy that, one day, he might be grilled on the witness stand in a court of law. What would it look like if Trump was put under oath and compelled to tell the whole truth about just one of his many offenses? What would remain of the world’s most powerful distorter if he were stripped of all his bluster and bullshit and forced to stick to hard, indisputable facts?
Almost nothing, it turns out. Thursday, at a civil defamation trial in Manhattan federal court, Trump took the witness stand, intending to defend himself against a rape accusation. He got out roughly half a dozen sentences, several of which were officially stricken from the record.
“This is not America,” Trump said aloud as he stalked out of the courtroom after spending less than five minutes on the stand.
“Not America,” he repeated, raising his voice and shooting a glare in the direction of the press in the gallery, as if commanding them to get-this-down. “This… is … not … America.”
Out in America — or, at least, the version of the country that exists in his imagination — Donald Trump is the all but certain Republican presidential nominee, a politician who can say anything he wants, about anyone he wants, without regard for the consequences. The courtroom, though, was a different realm. Its absolute ruler, Judge Lewis Kaplan, had served for 30 years on the bench, long enough to develop an air of cantankerous authority. The judge even seems to have done something many figured would be impossible, intimidating Trump himself. For weeks, Trump had been teasing the press and the public about his eagerness to take the stand and face a jury of nine anonymous citizens who are considering how much he should pay in damages to E. Jean Carroll, a writer that he defamed after New York published her first-person account of allegedly being raped by Trump back in the 1990s. (New York is not a party to the lawsuit, and I had no role in soliciting, editing, or publishing the story.) Late on Wednesday, the day before his testimony, Trump published a post on his platform Truth Social calling the judge “extraordinarily hostile” and a “100% Trump hater.” But even Trump did not dare to say that to Kaplan’s face.
Kaplan’s intolerance of defiance is legendary. Famously, he once hired a private law firm to investigate and prosecute an environmentalist attorney for defying court orders related to alleged misconduct in a case against Chevron. (The lawyer, Steven Donziger, was found guilty of misdemeanor contempt and sentenced to six months in prison.) Trump and his lawyers have shown a willingness to push the bounds of evidentiary rules and to playact like they’re on Law & Order in more freewheeling venues, like the nearby state courthouse where the comparatively cheerful Judge Arthur Engoron recently concluded a civil fraud trial. Outside the state courtroom, there were barricades set up for TV-camera crews, which Trump would go outside and address during every break. Kaplan has shut down any attempt to turn his courtroom into a political theater. He won’t even allow Trump and his retinue to carry phones into his court. At one point during the morning’s proceedings, a cell phone chimed in the section of the gallery where members of the Trump team were sitting.
“Take that man out of here,” Kaplan growled as court officers hustled out a heavyset individual, who was never seen again, possibly because he is now floating in the East River.
Kaplan has controlled the trial in large ways, too, via a series of decisions that have kept it tightly framed on the narrow issue of damages. The underlying question of what happened to Carroll back in the 1990s was the subject of another civil trial held last year, where a jury found that it was more likely than not Trump did sexually assault her in a department-store dressing room, as she claimed in her article and an accompanying book. In September, Kaplan ruled that the earlier verdict would be accepted for the purposes of the second trial, too, meaning that Trump would not be permitted to argue otherwise in court. On Friday, as Trump listened to Carroll’s lead attorney Roberta Kaplan explain that finding in her closing argument, telling the jury that Trump “doesn’t get a do-over” on the question of whether he committed sexual assault, the former president appeared to grow visibiliy upset, and he got up and left his usual place at the defense table, storming across the hallway to an adjacent holding room.
“Excuse me,” Judge Kaplan, who is not related to Carroll’s lawyer, interjected. “The record will reflect that Donald Trump just rose and walked out of the courtroom.”
This second jury is only supposed to consider how much Trump should pay Carroll for defaming her in a series of statements to the press in which he suggested that she was lying about the attack, she was politically and financially motivated, and darkly hinted she would “pay dearly” for making “such false accusations.” Carroll’s lawyers have presented evidence that after Trump made his statements, his followers picked up his cues and unleashed a torrent of abuse on his accuser, even threatening to rape and kill her.
Prior to Trump’s testimony, Carroll’s legal team entered a series of additional defiant statements Trump has made during the trial into evidence. “It’s a rigged deal, it’s a made up, fabricated story,” he said at a press conference held after Carroll testified on January 17. In another Truth Social post, he called her story a “made up and disgusting hoax.” The plaintiffs also played a video of an earlier deposition in which Trump said he had had “a lot of hoaxes played on me,” saying he could cite a “whole list.” It included Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian election interference, his Ukraine-related impeachment, and the 2020 election. (“Mail-in ballots: very dishonest,” he said, before admitting he sometimes votes absentee himself.) Elsewhere in the deposition, Trump’s continuing animus toward Carroll was on plain display. “This woman is sick,” he said, calling her a “wack job” who had made up the story “out of the cold air.”
As the video played, Trump stared at the monitor, his eyelids half-closed, and appeared to yawn.
The defense presented only two witnesses. The first, Carol Martin, is a longtime friend of Carroll’s, one of two witnesses who testified at the first trial that Carroll had confided that Trump had attacked her shortly after the incident. Trump’s lead attorney, Alina Habba, presented Martin with text messages in which she criticized what she described as Carroll’s “narcissism” and told others that she thought her friend was “loving the adulation” that came with suing Trump. Martin replied that she regretted her “hyperbole” and, despite the backbiting, still considered Carroll a dear friend. (When the court recessed for lunch, Carroll came up to her and gave her a big hug.)
After lunch, before the jury returned, Kaplan presided over a short hearing at which he sternly reiterated his previous rulings as to what Trump could and could not contest on the stand, including the jury’s finding that he had sexually abused Carroll by forcibly “inserting his fingers into her vagina.”
“UGGGGGGH!” Trump moaned at the defense table, as he listened to the clinical description.
“I want to know everything he is going to say,” Kaplan said to Habba.
“I’m not going to testify for my client,” Habba replied, refusing to make any definitive predictions.
“You are making an offer of proof and your client is bound by it,” Kaplan said.
Habba assured Kaplan that she would only ask her client to address three subjects: first, whether he stood by his deposition testimony; second, what his state of mind was in defending himself against Carroll’s accusations; and third, whether he had ever directed anyone else to hurt his accuser. Kaplan instructed her to narrow her inquiries further. “There will not be an open-ended question,” he said. Meanwhile Trump was growing agitated, barking at his lawyer.
“I never met the woman,” he said audibly. “I do not know who the woman is.” Trump seemed not to understand — or at least to accept — the legal strictures the judge had placed on his testimony. “I wasn’t at the trial,” he said, referring to one that resulted in a verdict finding him liable for the sexual abuse. Several times, he appeared to say to Habba, “It’s a separate trial.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Trump, you are interrupting these proceedings by speaking loudly,” Kaplan said.
Ultimately, Kaplan knocked Habba down to just two questions. He called the jurors back, and they filed in, carrying notebooks. “The defense calls President Donald Trump,” Habba said.
“Mr. President,” she said, asking her first question. “Do you stand by the testimony in your deposition?”
“One-hundred percent yes,” Trump said. Then, he tried to elaborate: “She said something, I consider it a false accusation, 100 percent false.”
Kaplan struck the second part of the answer and told the jury to disregard it.
Habba asked her second question, about whether he had ever told anyone to hurt Carroll.
“No,” Trump replied. “I just wanted to defend myself, my family, and frankly, the presidency.”
“Everything after ‘no’ is stricken,” Kaplan said.
And with that, for one day, in one room, Donald Trump’s voice was erased.