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Judge clears way for Trump to testify at defamation trial that starts Tuesday

Jason Marz/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — A New York judge has cleared the way for Donald Trump to testify at his own defamation trial after lawyers for writer E. Jean Carroll raised concerns that the former president could “sow chaos” by attending the trial, which begins Tuesday.

Judge Lewis Kaplan said that, if necessary, he would grant a continuance so that the trial, which was initially scheduled to conclude this week, would be extended so Trump could testify on Monday, Jan. 22.

In a separate order, the judge rejected Trump’s request to postpone the trial for a week so he could attend Thursday’s funeral of Amalija Knavs, the mother of former first lady Melania Trump, who died last Tuesday after a long health battle.

“The Court offers its condolences to Mr. and Mrs. Trump and the rest of Ms. Knavs’ family,” the judge wrote. “Mr. Trump is free to attend the trial, the funeral, or all or parts of both, as he wishes.”

Carroll, a former Elle magazine columnist, sued Trump in November 2019 over comments he made shortly after Carroll publicly accused him of raping her in a Manhattan department store dressing room in the 1990s.

Last May, Carroll won a related case accusing Trump of battery and defamation based on a 2022 statement Trump made on social media in which he again accused her of lying about the alleged attack. Jury members found that Trump did not rape Carroll but sexually abused her, and awarded her a total of $5 million. Trump, who has denied all wrongdoing, is appealing that case.

This week’s trial will determine how much Trump owes Carroll in damages for defaming her in 2019, after a Carroll in September won a partial summary judgment against Trump based on the ruling in last year’s case.

Concerned that Trump might “poison” this week’s court proceedings, Carroll’s attorney had requested “robust prophylactic measures” in case Trump attends the jury trial.

“If Mr. Trump appears at this trial, whether as a witness or otherwise, his recent statements and behavior strongly suggest that he will seek to sow chaos. Indeed, he may well perceive a benefit in seeking to poison these proceedings,” wrote Carroll’s lawyer Roberta Kaplan, who is no relation to the judge.

In arguing for strict rules governing Trump’s attendance, Carroll’s attorney cited Trump’s conduct last week at his New York civil fraud trial, where Trump delivered a closing statement that the attorney said contradicted the court’s summary judgment ruling, attacked the legitimacy of the proceedings, and violated the ground rules established by the judge.

“It takes little imagination to think that Mr. Trump is gearing up for a similar performance here — only this time, in front of a jury,” Carroll’s attorney wrote.

In advance of the trial, Judge Kaplan had issued a series of orders limiting what Trump and his lawyers are allowed to argue. Per those orders, Trump cannot claim he did not rape Carroll, nor can he deny that he sexually assaulted her, or question her motives, or claim she was lying. With such testimony off the table, Carroll’s attorney argued that Trump would likely have no feasible arguments that he could make if he testifies, suggesting the move would be part of a broader political tactic to delegitimize the trial.

“While a defamation defendant could theoretically offer testimony about their lack of wealth in the hope of minimizing a punitive damages award, any such testimony from Mr. Trump here would run headlong into Mr. Trump’s sworn testimony and public statements elsewhere,” she wrote.

Carroll’s attorney asked that the judge warn Trump about the consequences of violating the court order against prohibited testimony, that he direct Trump’s lawyers to provide proof of that Trump understands the consequences before Trump testifies, and that he require Trump to testify on the record that he “sexually assaulted Ms. Carroll, and that he spoke falsely with actual malice and lied when accusing her of fabricating her account and impugning her motives.”

Responding in a letter to the court, Trump attorney Alina Habba described the requests as a “desperate attempt to pigeonhole President Trump’s defense and to prevent his legal team from preparing for the upcoming trial.”

Habba told the court that Trump “can still offer considerable testimony in his defense,” including clarifying the circumstances of his allegedly defamatory statements and differentiating the alleged multiple instances of sexual assault raised at trial. She added that the remedies proposed by Carroll’s team are “far-fetched” and unreasonable to enforce in front of a jury, including forcing Trump to state on the record that he sexually assaulted Carroll.

“We presume that this is not a kangaroo court of a third-world country where a party to a lawsuit is involuntarily made to say what a court and an opposing party wants them to say,” Habba wrote. “Given the Court’s prior rulings in this case, President Trump’s ability to defend himself at trial is already severely limited. Precluding him from taking the stand altogether would be a manifest injustice and a clear violation of his constitutional rights.”

Judge Kaplan declined to adopt the measures proposed by Carroll’s lawyers but vowed to ensure the rule of law would be followed during the trial.

“The Court will take such measures as it finds appropriate to avoid circumvention of its rulings and of the law,” the judge wrote.

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