Columnist Byron York

Judge Engoron’s retribution against Trump

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Donald Trump has just a few weeks to find a way to pay, or guarantee that he will pay, the $355 million fine that a New York judge imposed on him in the lawsuit brought by the state’s Democratic Attorney General Letitia James. The suit was the culmination of James’ campaign to bring financial ruin on the former president, and it might succeed; unless it is reduced on appeal, the actual amount Trump will owe, including interest, could top $450 million.

That’s insane, of course. Even assuming that the case proved Trump overstated the values of some of his properties for the purpose of getting lower interest rates on real-estate loans, the other things that the case revealed — that this was an example of selective prosecution, that there were no victims, that the loans were paid back in a “timely and total” fashion, that the lending institutions made the loans based not on Trump’s representations but on their own research, and that some of those institutions were eager to do business with Trump again — all meant that a far smaller penalty, perhaps a tiny fraction of what Judge Arthur Engoron imposed, would be appropriate.

Engoron wrote a 92-page opinion explaining his actions. First, if you wondered why there was no jury and the decision was left to Engoron and Engoron alone, the judge noted that that is New York law in this case. James structured the lawsuit so that Trump could not appeal to the judgment of a jury. “There was no right to a jury,” Engoron wrote, “and the case was ‘tried to the Court,’ the Court being the sole factfinder and the sole ‘judge of credibility.’”

Engoron conceded that Trump repaid all his loans in full and on time. There was no one to play the role of victim, no one to testify that Trump cheated them out of anything. The banks didn’t lose money, they made money — the precise amounts specified in the loan contracts. But the judge still found misconduct. “It is undisputed that defendants have made all required payments on time,” he wrote. But “timely and total repayment of loans does not extinguish the harm that false statements inflict on the marketplace.”

A number of observers remarked that they knew of no other case like the Trump lawsuit. Indeed, addressing concerns that some businesses, fearing Trump-like harassment lawsuits themselves, might leave New York, Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul said she understood that the case might make some businesspeople nervous, “but this is really an extraordinarily unusual circumstance that the law-abiding, rule-following New Yorkers who are businesspeople have nothing to worry about.” What she meant was: Look, Attorney General James went after Trump because he is Trump. It’s political. You don’t need to worry.

Judge Engoron suggested that one reason he threw the book at Trump was that Trump would not admit error in falsifying estimates of his properties’ value. Engoron said the Trump side only confessed to one error, a description of the Trump Tower Penthouse that tripled its actual square footage. Other than that, Trump defended his valuations. The striking thing was that Engoron suggested that the overvaluations — the heart of the case — weren’t really a serious offense; it was Trump’s refusal to confess error that led Engoron to impose such a draconian penalty.

“Their complete lack of contrition and remorse borders on pathological,” Engoron wrote of Trump and his co-defendants. “They are accused only of inflating asset values to make more money. The documents prove this over and over again. This is a venial sin, not a mortal sin. Defendants did not commit murder or arson. They did not rob a bank at gunpoint. Donald Trump is not Bernard Madoff. Yet, defendants are incapable of admitting the error of their ways. Instead, they adopt a ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ posture that the evidence belies.”

That suggests Trump might have saved himself millions of dollars, maybe hundreds of millions of dollars, if he had simply told the judge: You’re right about everything, and I will go and sin no more. Instead, Engoron punished what he called a “venial” sin — that is, a minor infraction — with a crippling $450 million fine.

An elected Democrat, Attorney General James ran for office on a pledge to destroy Trump’s business empire. Now, making full use of an idiosyncratic New York state law and a compliant judge, she has made a giant step toward her goal. Just as a reminder, here are some of the things James promised in her campaign:

“This illegitimate president,” James said, “he’s not my president, he’s an illegitimate president. His days are numbered. His days are numbered...We’ve got to be ready to mobilize and we’ve got to get ready to agitate and irritate until victory is won, or more importantly, until Trump is defeated...We will all rise up and resist this man...and ultimately we’ll bring him down...I’m going to give [Trump] the same level of respect that [Trump] gave President Obama, and that is absolutely no respect at all...Donald Trump has got to go. Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Donald Trump has got to go!...The days of Trump are numbered.” On at least one occasion, a crowd yelled to James, “Lock him up!” Starting a call-and-response, James responded, “What?” “Lock him up!” the crowd yelled. “What?” “Lock him up!” And on it went.

So that is what Letitia James was trying to do. Last week, it was Judge Engoron’s turn to impose punishment. Yes, there will be appeals, and if there is any common sense at all in the New York system of justice, the $450 million penalty will be drastically reduced. But the bottom line remains, this was a highly politicized and grossly unfair lawsuit against former President Trump.