Donald Trump will have looked directly at Arthur Engoron, the 74-year-old judge who controls the destiny of his real estate enterprise, as he took the stand on Monday in an unremarkable New York courtroom.
Since his family business has already been found guilty of fraud, the judge, not a jury, will have to decide whether to punish him with fines of up to $250 million (£202 million) or restrict his ability to conduct business in the state.
Judge Engoron played a crucial role, although Mr. Trump acted aggressively while testifying. He addressed the judge directly, which resulted in some tense moments, and he received criticism for voicing general complaints that had little bearing on the issue at hand.
“It does seem completely counterintuitive. Especially when the judge is going to be the finder of fact and law,” Kevin McMunigal, a former federal prosecutor and professor of criminal law at Case Western University, told the BBC.
“There are only two explanations,” he said. “One is Trump just can’t control himself. Or two: Maybe this is something he has thought out.”
So if Mr Trump’s team has adopted this antagonistic approach as a deliberate strategy, what could the goal be?
“I think he is trying to goad the judge into doing something he can argue on appeal shows prejudice on his part,” Prof McMunigal said. “Maybe he makes a comment they can use to support a bias case later.”
In addition to discussing a possible mistrial move that appears to refer to exchanges between the judge and his law clerk—whom they have accused of bias—Mr. Trump’s attorneys are anticipated to submit an appeal.
Considering the possible disputes surrounding this, it was noteworthy that Judge Engoron hardly ever reacted when Mr. Trump personally criticized him on Monday.
Mr. Trump has attempted to portray the lawsuit as a politically driven “witch-hunt” throughout the trial. He has called Democratic attorneys general Letitia James of New York and Judge Engoron “rogue” and “corrupt.” And in court, his legal team has attempted to employ comparable strategies. Mr. Trump said the judge was “very hostile” and that he “always rules against me” in addition to rejecting any wrongdoing and defending his business tactics.
“Its usually a tactic nobody wants to do because the judge has so much discretionary power in the case,” he said.
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, agreed. He told the BBC that Mr Trump’s combative responses indicated that his legal team believed “they’ve already lost”.
He said it would be a safer strategy for Mr Trump to invoke his right under the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution and decline to answer questions.
“He’s focused on provoking a fight with the judge,” he said. “None of that helps, from a legal perspective.”