NEW YORK (AP) — A judge on Thursday reaffirmed Donald Trump’s $10,000 fine over an out-of-court comment during Trump’s New York civil business fraud trial, a penalty the former president’s lawyers argued was unfair and unconstitutional.
Judge Arthur Engoron fined Trump on Wednesday after finding that his comments to TV cameras outside the courtroom violated a limited gag order. It bars participants in the trial from commenting publicly on the judge’s staff.
Outside court Wednesday, the Republican presidential front-runner 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.”
Those words came after one of Trump’s lawyers had groused earlier that morning about the judge’s principal law clerk — the same one Trump had disparaged weeks earlier in a social media post that prompted the gag order.
Summoned Wednesday to the witness stand to explain his comment about the person “alongside” the judge, Trump said he was talking not about the clerk but about former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, who was testifying at the time.
On Wednesday, Engoron called Trump’s contention “not credible,” noting that the clerk is closer to him than is the witness stand.
Trump’s lawyers insisted anew Thursday that Trump was talking about Cohen. Attorney Christopher Kise pointed out that right after Trump’s reference to the person “sitting alongside” the judge, the former president said: “We are doing very well, the facts are speaking very loud. He is a totally discredited witness” — a reference to Cohen.
Kise argued that it meant the person “alongside” the judge was also Cohen, and he asked Engeron to rethink the fine. Kise also argued that if the judge maintained that the remark was indeed about the clerk, the fine would infringe on Trump’s First Amendment rights.
“His business is being attacked, and he’s entitled to comment, fairly, on what he perceives in open court,” Kise said.
Engoron was cool to the constitutional argument: “I don’t think it’s impinging on anybody’s First Amendment rights to protect my staff,” he explained. But he agreed to examine the full remarks and reconsider the fine.
He subsequently decided to stand by it, citing “a brief but clear transition” between the mention of the person “alongside” the judge and the comment about the “discredited witness.”
“That was, to me, a clear transition from one person to another, and I think the person originally referred to was my clerk,” Engoron said.
Trump wasn’t in court Thursday. He has voluntarily attended several other days.
The case involves a lawsuit that New York Attorney General Letitia James filed last year against Trump, his company and top executives. The Democratic attorney general said Trump and his business chronically lied about his wealth on financial statements given to banks, insurers and others. Trump denies any wrongdoing.
The civil trial concerns allegations of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records. James is seeking $250 million in penalties and a ban on Trump doing business in New York.
Engoron already ordered that a court-appointed receiver take control of some Trump companies, putting the future oversight of Trump Tower and other marquee properties in question. An appeals court has blocked enforcement of that aspect of Engoron’s ruling, at least for now.