NEW YORK — A New York judge on Wednesday fined Donald Trump $10,000 for violating a gag order in a business-fraud lawsuit — and warned the former president that the penalties will only get worse if he keeps breaking the rules set for the civil trial, in which he is accused of falsely inflating his property values.
The five-figure fine came after New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron unexpectedly called Trump to the witness stand to explain, under oath, a comment he made outside the courtroom earlier in the day. Trump’s surprise testimony lasted only about three minutes, but in that time he failed to convince the judge of his honesty or good intentions.
The dispute began during a break in the testimony Wednesday morning. Speaking to reporters in a hallway, Trump complained that Engoron, a Democrat, is “a very partisan judge, with a person who’s very partisan sitting alongside of him, perhaps even much more partisan than he is.”
Learning of those comments, Engoron summoned Trump to explain exactly what he meant.
Engoron had issued a gag order Oct. 3 barring Trump from disparaging court staffers after the former president publicly criticized the judge’s law clerk in a social media post. At the judge’s instruction, Trump deleted that post, which included the law clerk’s photo.
When Engoron learned last week that Trump’s comments about the law clerk remained online on one of Trump’s political websites, he fined Trump $5,000 for violating the gag order.
Facing off with Trump again Wednesday, Engoron had little patience with the former president.
On the witness stand, Trump said his remark outside court was a reference not to the judge’s law clerk, who sits next to Engoron in the courtroom on the bench, but to former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who had been on the witness stand earlier in the day testifying against his former boss.
Trump told the judge he was talking only about Cohen. But when pressed, he said of the law clerk: “I think she’s very biased against us. I think we made that clear.”
Engoron said he didn’t believe Trump’s explanation that he was talking about Cohen.
“As the trier of fact I find that the witness is not credible,” Engoron said, adding that he believed Trump was “referring to my … principal law clerk, who is sitting much closer to me.” The judge noted there’s a barrier between the witness stand and the bench and said that was part of the reason he believed Trump meant the clerk and not Cohen.
“I hereby fine you $10,000, which is on the liberal side, to be paid in 30 days,” the judge said.
The judge’s skepticism also may have been fueled by comments Trump’s legal team has made about the clerk, including as recently as Wednesday morning, when Trump lawyer Alina Habba complained that the clerk was rolling her eyes throughout Tuesday’s cross-examination.
“It is incredibly distracting when there are eye rolls and constant whispering at the bench when I’m trying to cross-examine a witness, so I’m just asking politely that you [show] restraint,” Habba said in comments that did not name the clerk specifically but were clearly aimed at her.
Trump’s public attacks on court personnel, prosecutors and witnesses have been a subject of growing concern in this and other legal cases involving the former president.
A federal judge in D.C. overseeing Trump’s pending criminal trial for allegedly conspiring to obstruct the 2020 election results has issued a partial gag order in that case but has temporarily stayed the order while she hears further legal arguments about the issue. Trump’s lawyers maintain that he should be allowed to speak freely as a citizen and a leading candidate in the 2024 Republican presidential primary.
In addition to the trial next year in Washington, Trump also faces three other criminal prosecutions — in Florida for allegedly mishandling national security secrets, in Georgia for allegedly conspiring to undo the 2020 election results in that state, and in New York for alleged business fraud related to a hush money payment in 2016.
The former president has denied all wrongdoing.
Engoron emphasized on Wednesday his concern that Trump’s rhetoric might cause someone to commit violence against the former president’s perceived foes and noted that Trump had recently violated the gag order.
“I’m very protective of my staff, as I believe I should be,” Engoron said. “I don’t want anybody killed.”
After the fine was issued, Trump’s lawyers asked Engoron to reconsider, but the judge said he would not reverse course.
“Don’t do it next time, or it’ll be worse,” the judge said.
Habba and the other Trump attorneys argued Trump was clearly talking about Cohen in his out-of-court comments, noting that reporters in the hallway were asking for Trump’s response to Cohen’s appearance and unrelated political events, not about any court personnel.
The judge’s clerk “was never in the front of mind or even asked [about],” Habba said.
The confrontation between the judge and the former president came at a critical moment in New York Attorney General Letitia James’s $250 million lawsuit against Trump, which accuses him and his business of drastically inflating the value of his real estate properties to gain better financial terms.
Cohen was nearing the end of his testimony against Trump — a showdown that had been years in the making, ever since the pair’s public and bitter falling-out. On the witness stand, Cohen accused Trump of directing the false inflation of the worth of his real estate empire.
Now disbarred and out of prison after pleading guilty to multiple federal crimes, Cohen defended his second career as a self-styled Trump historian and truth-teller who has battled the former president on social media, in books, on a podcast and in frequent interviews.
Habba suggested Wednesday that Cohen should not be considered a reliable witness. Cohen conceded he had a financial incentive to criticize his former boss.
“A substantial amount of your present-day income is derived from publicly criticizing President Trump?” Habba asked.
“Amongst other people,” Cohen said. “It’s not just Trump only.”
After the dust-up over the gag order, Trump’s lawyers made a long-shot request for Engoron to cut the trial short and issue a directed verdict, but the judge rejected that motion.
With that, Trump got up and walked out of the courtroom, muttering, “I’m leaving.”
In a written statement, a Trump spokesman said Engoron “continues to harass President Trump, doing everything possible to infringe on President Trump’s First Amendment rights to free speech and interfere in the 2024 President Election.” The statement called the trial “rigged” and Cohen “deceitful.”
Cohen has testified that Trump personally gave marching orders to restate the purported value of his assets to achieve a false net worth that could be used to save money in deals with lenders and insurance firms.
The lawsuit, now in its fourth week, could result in significant financial and business penalties for Trump, his company and two of his adult children.
Barrett reported from Washington.