|Donald Trump and attorney Alina Habba
Since early June, longtime Alabama attorney Donald Watkins, who is one of the nation's foremost experts on criminal defense, has written almost a dozen posts, explaining that Donald Trump's lawyers are not up to the task of defending their client. In fact, Watkins has said Trump's legal team is running a "clown show." Now, we have proof that Watkins was right, and it comes from . . . Trump's lawyers.
As the record-holder for winning the most felony counts (85) in a single-defendant, high-profile, federal criminal case (U.S. v. Richard Scrushy), Watkins knows a thing or two about complex criminal trials -- and he has been writing for months that Trump's lawyers do not have what it takes to overcome the kind of legal challenges their client faces.
That means Watkins likely will be one of the least surprised people in the country when he reads this Tuesday headline from Salon: "'Mind-blowing': Legal experts warn that lawyer’s incredible 'screw-up' is 'very ominous' for Trump; Trump facing bench trial because 'nobody asked for' a jury trial,' judge says." Writes Gabriella Ferrigine:
New York Judge Arthur Ergoron on Monday said that he is holding a bench trial in New York Attorney General Letitia James' fraud lawsuit against former President Donald Trump because "nobody asked for" a jury trial on either side," The Messenger's Adam Klasfeld reported. "Trump isn't getting a jury trial in his $250m civil fraud suit brought against him by New York AG James because his legal team didn't request one on the paperwork," explained The Guardian's Hugo Lowell.
Legal experts were shocked that such a gaffe could occur on a simple administrative matter. Writes Ferrignine:
No one on Trump's legal team seems to be in a hurry to accept blame for what legal analysts have called a "screw-up." From an article at Newsweek:
Legal experts were stunned by the revelation, characterizing it as a blunder by the former president's lawyers. "So Alina Habba didn't demand a jury trial?!" wrote MSNBC legal analyst Katie Phang. "I wonder how Trump feels about this screw-up by his legal team." Former U.S. Attorney Harry Litman called the decision "mind-blowing."
"For Trump to have his fate in the hands of this judge, whom he has vilified, is malpractice by his lawyers and very ominous for him," Litman wrote on X, formerly Twitter. "It's incredibly easy to ask for a jury trial. You just check a box on a form. Hard to believe that Trump understood that his lawyers hadn't done it when he's been savaging the judge who is now the fact finder in his huge fraud trial," he added.
Donald Trump's lawyer, Alina Habba, has denied suggestions that the former president is not getting a jury trial in his New York $250-million fraud civil case because his legal team did not request one in legal filings.
On the first day of proceedings, Judge Arthur Engoron told the Manhattan courtroom that "nobody asked for" a jury trial, and that is why the outcome of the lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Letitia James will be decided by the judge in a bench trial.
Legal experts said that all Trump's legal team had to do to request a jury trial was to tick a box in court filings, with some suggesting that Habba herself failed to do so. In late July, James' office filed papers to request a trial without jury, which is common for civil cases, with Trump's legal team apparently not opposing the request.
Speaking to Newsmax on Monday, Habba denied that the reason Trump has not got a jury trial in the fraud case is because his legal team "had this great option to have a box checked" which they did not take, describing the suggestion as a "misconception."
Habba argued that the case was filed under New York Executive Law 63(12), which she described as a "very narrow, not appropriately used," section of the law" for consumer protection where a jury is generally not required.
"It's not this, and that is why we're sitting here in front of a judge dealing with values of property, where real estate, anybody with real-estate brains, anybody with real-estate experience, even laymen, can understand that a tax assessment is not the same as the market value of your property, period," Habba added.
A similar argument was made by a Trump spokesperson in a statement. "The Attorney General filed this case under a consumer-protection statute that denies the right to a jury," the spokesperson told Newsweek. "It is unfortunate that a jury won't be able to hear how absurd the merits of this case are and conclude no wrongdoing ever happened."
Other lawyers did not agree with the view of Trump's legal team. From Newsweek:
California Democratic Representative Ted Lieu suggested Trump and his team may have purposely opted to not have a jury trial so the former president "can keep falsely blaming the judge for the outcome."
However, lawyer Andrew Fleischman dismissed the suggestions that not having a jury trial is a tactic from Trump's team.
"I honestly can't believe that any lawyer hired on such an important case could make this mistake. But I also can't think of any strategic reason you'd want a bench trial in front of a judge who just sanctioned your lawyers for making frivolous arguments," Fleischman posted on X.
Engoron already ruled on September 26 that Trump committed fraud while inflating the value of several of his properties and assets for years while filing financial statements, the main crux of James' $250-million lawsuit against the former president, his sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr., and The Trump Organization.
The ruling means that the civil trial will now look at other allegations from James' lawsuit related to falsification of business records, issuing false financial statements, insurance fraud and conspiracy, as well as the size of the penalty which will be decided by Engoron—a judge Trump has frequently attacked on social media as "deranged."
Speaking outside the New York courtroom on Monday, Trump, the front-runner in the 2024 GOP presidential primary, continued his attacks on Engoron and the case.
"This is a judge that should be disbarred. This is a judge that should be out of office. This is a judge that some people say could be charged criminally for what he's doing. He's interfering with an election, and it's a disgrace," Trump said.
As for Donald Watkins, he wrote this about Trump's lawyers on August 23, 2023:
After watching the events of this week, I have determined that Trump’s criminal-defense lawyers are completely clueless on how to defend the former president in his four high-profile cases. They are simply lost in the weeds.
The only area where Trump’s lawyers appear to excel is in billing him for legal fees. According to published media reports, Trump and Super PACs aligned with him have paid these lawyers more than $40 million.
I do not think Donald Trump has any confidence in his criminal defense teams. It shows by the look on Trump's face.
Mr. Watkins, it seems clear, was right on target about that.