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"Objection!" One word frequently echoes through the courtroom at Trump's civil fraud trial

Donald Trump wants gag order overturned
Donald Trump wants highest New York court to overturn gag order 03:27

Not long after a lawyer for New York Attorney General Letitia James began his opening statement on Oct. 2, he was interrupted.

"Your Honor, objection," said Clifford Robert, who represents Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump in the civil fraud case in which they're defendants alongside their father, former President Donald Trump and their company.

It was the first of nearly 600 objections voiced by the two sides during the first 25 days of trial, according to a review of transcripts. Objections have been raised far more than is typical for a bench trial, in which a judge — ostensibly a legal expert — decides the case, according to New York defense attorney Arthur Aidala.

"Objections, in general, really pertain more to a jury than a judge," said Aidala, who has represented high-profile clients, such as former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, at trial. "In a bench trial case, there's really not usually a lot of objecting, unless someone's trying to do something really just way, way, way out of line, because the judge knows what he or she can't take into consideration."

But on many days during the Trump fraud trial, few words are uttered more frequently. For instance, on Oct. 3, the second day of the trial, variations of "object" and "objection" were said 103 times, just 10 shy of "Organization," as in the Trump Organization. "Donald" was said 86 times. It was the first name of the witness on the stand — accountant Donald Bender — and of course two Trump defendants, one of whom, the former president himself, was in the courtroom.

The frequent objections may have more to do with Trump's legal plans for after the trial than the ongoing proceedings, according to CBS News legal analyst Rikki Klieman. She pointed to a Sept. 26 ruling by the judge, Arthur Engoron, finding Trump and the other defendants liable for fraud before the trial even began. The trial is proceeding on allegations related to conspiracy, falsification of business records and insurance fraud.

"The defense really feels that by virtue of deciding the fraud issue first, that this is an unfair trial,"  Klieman said. "One of the ways that they are attempting to show how unfair it is to an appellate tribunal is by lodging these objections."

Defense attorneys have already appealed the Sept. 26 ruling, and have repeatedly indicated they intend to appeal further losses stemming from the trial. A source with knowledge of the legal team's strategy indicated to CBS News in October that they are prepared for the judge to rule against them at the end of the trial, but believe appeals courts will reverse their losses.

Defense attorney Christopher Kise has said on multiple occasions that he was lodging complaints for the appellate record.  In one instance on Nov. 8, while Ivanka Trump was on the stand, Kise said he was doing so because the judge's rulings were "frequently" going against the defendants. Engoron indicated why that might be the case.

"Well, you could try to surmise that that's because of bias. Or, you could understand that I think their objections have been of greater validity than yours on the whole, and that their positions — well, I'll leave it at that," Engoron said.

Many of the objections concern the statute of limitations. The Trump team believes that any material from before July 2014 should be outside the scope of the case, which includes allegations dating back to 2011. They have a so-called "standing objection" in place to all such evidence, meaning they don't have to voice their objection to every single one, according to Engoron.

"They're standing objections. You don't have to keep saying them. I recognize standing objections. The Court of Appeals recognizes the standing objections. You don't even have to call them a standing objection," an exasperated Engoron said on Oct. 5. He has overruled the ongoing statute of limitations complaint.

Both sides tend to object more when anyone with the last name "Trump" is present. When the state was presenting its case, from Oct. 2 through Nov. 8, Donald Trump or his three eldest children testified or attended proceedings on 12 days. There were about 250 objections raised by Trump's lawyers during that time, and about 90 raised by the attorney general's team. 

During the 13 days when no Trump was present, his team voiced about 40 fewer objections, and the attorney general's objections dropped by nearly 60.

Klieman said it's unlikely lawyers are objecting merely because the Trumps are there.

"The lawyer should not be objecting more because his or her client is in the room. That should be totally irrelevant," Klieman said. "A good lawyer knows the rules of evidence and the objection should be ethical and proper and done for the right reasons, including building a record for appeal."

But Aidala said a lawyer getting paid by the hour in a bench trial might sometimes want to show a client they're "awake and doing [their] job."

"I think it's just probably a way for the Trump attorneys to indicate to their client, 'We're here, we're paying attention, and look, see, we're so on top of our game, we're actually objecting,'" said Aidala, whose firm represents Rudy Giuliani, a co-defendant in Trump's Georgia criminal racketeering case.

Trump is scheduled to testify as the defense's final witness on Dec. 11.

The New York attorney general has accused the Trumps and other defendants of reaping $250 million in benefits through a decade-long scheme to juice the former president's net worth on financial statements. The trial is set against the backdrop of both his 2024 presidential election campaign, and four separate criminal cases. The campaign and cases have become intertwined. In fundraising efforts and speeches, he has denied the allegations against him, and accused those who have charged him of doing so for political gain.

It's a set of factors that have made the trial, and its spotlight, unique in American history. When Donald Trump is present, he often echoes his lawyers' arguments and objections to members of the press squeezed into pens just outside the courtroom. He bellows grievances about the judge and attempts to recount legal theories minutes after hearing them on the other side of the door.

"All of this is under the patina that you have two simultaneous audiences here. One is the court and the other is the court of public opinion," Klieman said, adding that Trump and his lawyers "feel sincerely that they are being railroaded here, and they want the public to know."

The unusual frequency of objections has also given rise to unusual complaints. Each side has accused the other of using so-called speaking objections, or long-winded soliloquies typically associated with efforts to influence a jury's understanding of the law.

In this case, they've accused each other of trying to influence witnesses on the stand. One such exchange from Oct. 18 exemplifies the accusation.

"Now we're on to speaking objections. There it is," Kise, the Trump attorney, said after a lengthy interruption by a lawyer for the attorney general, amid testimony by a witness named Douglas Larson. "Would they like to write out the answer for Mr. Larson?"

"We learned from the best," replied Assistant Attorney General Colleen Faherty.

"Apparently," Kise shot back.

Exchanges like this show the animosity between the two sides, Klieman said.

"You have such bad blood here between the two sides that their emotional quotients are high, and they're mad," Klieman said.

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