Trump is fined $10,000 over a comment he made outside court in his New York civil fraud trial
Oct 25, 2023, 1:49 PM | Updated: Oct 26, 2023, 5:34 am
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump was called to the witness stand and then fined $10,000 on Wednesday after a judge concluded that the former president had violated a limited gag order in his civil fraud trial. It was the second time in less than a week that Trump was penalized for his out-of-court comments.
Before imposing the latest fine, Judge Arthur Engoron summoned Trump from the defense table to testify about his comment to reporters hours earlier about “a person who’s very partisan sitting alongside” the judge.
Engoron on Oct. 3 had ordered all participants in the trial not to comment publicly about his staff, a restriction issued after a Trump social media post maligning the judge’s principal law clerk, who sits next to Engoron.
Trump and his lawyers insisted this his comment Wednesday was about witness Michael Cohen, a former Trump lawyer, and not about the clerk.
Engoron said Trump’s claim was “not credible,” noting that the clerk sat far closer to the judge than Cohen did while testifying.
“The idea that the statement would refer to the witness,” Engoron said, “doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Five days earlier, Trump had been fined $5,000 after Engoron learned that the offending social media post from early October had lingered on Trump’s campaign website for weeks after he was ordered to take it down from his Truth Social media platform, which was done.
Then, on Wednesday, the Republican presidential front-runner complained in a courthouse hallway that Engoron, a Democrat, is “a very partisan judge, with a person who’s very partisan sitting along side of him, perhaps even much more partisan than he is.”
Under oath on the witness stand, Trump told the judge that the remark was aimed at “you and Cohen.”
But Trump did not conceal his frustration with the clerk. “I think she’s very biased against us. I think we’ve made that clear,” Trump said.
Three of Trump’s lawyers objected to the $10,000 fine, and they reiterated Trump’s claim that the clerk was partial.
Not long after he was fined and moments after one of his lawyers finished questioning Cohen, Trump stood up and walked out the courtroom, trailed by his son Eric.
The episode highlighted questions about whether Trump can abide by court directives aimed at reining in his rhetoric while also respecting his free speech rights as he campaigns to return to the White House.
Last week, the judge in Trump’s 2020 election interference criminal case in Washington imposed a gag order barring public statements targeting prosecutors, court staff and potential witnesses. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan’s order came after prosecutors raised concerns that Trump’s remarks could inspire his supporters to threaten or harass his targets.
Trump is appealing that order, which he has contended is unconstitutional. Chutkan temporarily lifted the order on Friday to consider a request from the defense for a longer pause on the restrictions while Trump’s appeals play out.
Since the order was lifted, Trump has disparaged Justice Department special counsel Jack Smith in an online post as “deranged” and said those who would make cooperation deals with prosecutors are “weaklings and cowards.”
In the New York case, Cohen returned to the witness stand on Wednesday as the defense team tried to undermine the credibility and question the motives of his onetime personal attorney turned adversary.
Trump lawyer Alina Habba confronted Cohen with comments he had made praising Trump, before turning on him when Cohen’s legal problems started in 2018.
Habba tried to suggest that Cohen had angled unsuccessfully for a job in Trump’s White House — Cohen insisted he never sought one — and asked whether he had “significant animosity” toward Trump.
“Do I have animosity toward him? Yes I do,” Cohen replied.
“You have made a career out of publicly attacking President Trump, haven’t you?” Habba asked.
After a long pause, Cohen said, “Yes.”
Cohen worked as Trump’s lawyer and fixer for many years, before Cohen’s 2018 federal prosecution, guilty pleas and prison sentence for tax evasion, making false statements on a bank loan application, lying to Congress and making illegal contributions to Trump’s campaign. The contributions were in the form of payouts to women who said they had extramarital sexual encounters with Trump, who said the women’s stories were false.
Cohen is now a key witness in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ civil case against Trump. James alleges that Trump habitually exaggerated the value of his real estate holdings on financial documents that helped him get loans and insurance and make deals.
Trump denies any wrongdoing and says James, a Democrat, is targeting him for partisan reasons.
During his first day of testimony Tuesday, Cohen said he and key executives at Trump’s company worked to inflate the estimated values of their employer’s holdings so documents given to banks and others would match a net worth that Trump had set “arbitrarily.”
In cross-examining Cohen, Habba emphasized his federal criminal convictions and worked to portray him as a liar, especially after he said Tuesday he had lied when he pleaded guilty to tax evasion and loan application lies. Cohen asserted that he did not really commit those crimes and he sought to portray his conduct as a matter of omissions and failure to correct paperwork.
Habba returned to those themes Wednesday, underscoring that Cohen had admitted in open court to lying under oath in a federal courthouse next door.
Outside court, Trump said the trial was “very unfair” and a “pure political witch hunt.” Nonetheless, he said, “We’re happy with the way it’s going.”
“We have the facts on our side,” Trump said. He’s expected to testify later in the trial but meanwhile has voluntarily attended several days of the proceedings.
Cohen is also expected to be an important prosecution witness in a criminal trial scheduled for next spring in which Trump is accused of falsifying business records. That case is one of four criminal prosecutions Trump faces in New York, Florida, Georgia and Washington.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.