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Trump called to witness stand and fined $10k for violating gag order in fraud trial

Donald Trump’s first turn on the witness stand during the multiple criminal and civil cases against him arrived on 25 October, when the former president was called to testify about his comments outside the courtroom during his fraud trial in New York.

He was fined $10,000 after the judge presiding over the case found that he violated the case’s gag order, again, with disparaging comments about his chief clerk steps away from the courtroom’s doors in lower Manhattan.

Mr Trump was called to the witness stand by Judge Arthur Engoron to testify about statements he gave to reporters on 25 October, in which he criticised a “very partisan judge” and “a person who’s very partisan sitting alongside of him,” what the judge determined was a comment aimed at his chief clerk.

The former president and his attorneys argued that Mr Trump was referring to Michael Cohen, his former lawyer who was testifying against him.

“To whom were you referring when you said the person ‘sitting alongside’?” the judge asked Mr Trump after he was sworn into court at the witness stand.

“You, and Cohen,” Mr Trump said.

The judge determined that Mr Trump was “not credible” and fined him $10,000 for what is now Mr Trump’s second violation of the order.

“Don’t do it again or it will be worse,” the judge said.

A courtroom sketch depicts Donald Trump on the witness stand in a civil fraud trial with New York Judge Arthur Engoron presiding on 25 October. (REUTERS)
A courtroom sketch depicts Donald Trump on the witness stand in a civil fraud trial with New York Judge Arthur Engoron presiding on 25 October. (REUTERS)

Issued on 3 October, the judge’s gag order prevents all parties in the case from posting, emailing or speaking publicly about members of the court’s staff after Mr Trump posted false statements on his Truth Social about the judge’s chief clerk who sits beside him.

Outside the courtroom during a brief trial break on Wednesday, Mr Trump told reporters: “If we had a jury it would have been fair, at least – even if it was a somewhat negative jury – because no negative jury would vote against me. But this judge will. Because this judge is a very partisan judge, with a person who’s very partisan sitting alongside of him, perhaps even much more partisan than he is.”

Judge Engoron asked Mr Trump whether those comments were directed to his chief clerk Allison Greenfield. Earlier this month, the former president and frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination posted false statements and a photo of Ms Greenfield on his Truth Social account. The judge then ordered him to delete it.

Last week, the judge fined him $5,000 for violating the subsequent gag order, after a version of the post was discovered on a Trump website.

“I think she is a very biased … We put up a picture and you didn’t want that up. I think we got if off our website,” Mr Trump said from the witness stand on Wednesday.

“We have so many different sites … I believe it was one of the political groups, one of the PACs,” he added.

The surprise testimony coloured a chaotic day in court, with attorneys for the former president sparring with the judge and counsel with the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James over Cohen’s prior testimony and questions surrounding his credibility.

Attorneys for the former president in his closely watched trial spent two days trying to undermine Cohen’s testimony by depicting him as a serial opportunist who exploited his connections to the former president for his own wealth and fame.

Cohen, a star witness in a trial stemming from a multi-million dollar lawsuit threatening Mr Trump’s business empire, previously testified that he was instructed to “reverse engineer” his former employer’s statements of financial condition to reflect his target number for his “arbitrarily” determined net worth.

Asked by counsel for the attorney general’s office on 24 October what that number was, Cohen replied: “Whatever number Mr Trump told us to.”

Questions from Mr Trump’s attorney Alina Habba, who paced in front of the courtroom as she directed dozens of queries to Cohen, appeared to argue that Cohen tried to leverage his relationship to Mr Trump to avoid harsher criminal penalties in his own criminal cases.

Ms Habba suggested that Cohen “cashed in” on his connections to Mr Trump while he was working for the Trump Organization and, later, from his fallout, as the former president routinely is the subject of Cohen’s books, podcasts and other media.

“Do you have significant animosity towards him?” she asked.

“Yes, I do,” Cohen replied.

“You have made a career out of publicly attacking President Trump, haven’t you?” she asked.

Cohen – who spoke deliberately and slowly throughout his testimony – paused.

“Yes,” he replied.

It’s unclear whether any of that, or questions about his credibility and allegedly conflicting statements, matters to the judge, who has already determined that no trial is necessary to prove that Mr Trump, his adult sons and chief business associates fraudulently inflated his wealth and assets over several years.

After Judge Engoron denied an attempt from Mr Trump’s attorneys to render a verdict in favour of Mr Trump, following serveral hours of cross examination from Ms Habba, the former president tossed his hands in frustration and left the courtroom.

“The witness just admitted that we won the trial,” he told reporters steps from the courtroom’s doors. “And the judge should end this trial immediately.”

Michael Cohen speaks to reporters after two days of testimony in Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial in New York Supreme Court on 25 October. (REUTERS)
Michael Cohen speaks to reporters after two days of testimony in Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial in New York Supreme Court on 25 October. (REUTERS)

Mr Trump’s attorneys argued that Cohen’s credibility has blown the attorney general’s case apart, an argument that Judge Engoron vehemently rejected.

“Absolutely not,” the judge said. “This case has evidence, credible or not, all over the place.”

He said that “no way, no how is this case being dismissed,” adding that “there’s enough evidence in the case to fill a courtroom.”

In 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to tax evasion, campaign finance violations, misrepresentations to a financial institution, and lying to Congress.

Cohen also was involved with the alleged hush-money payments at the centre of a separate criminal case in New York charging Mr Trump with falsifying business records to snuff out compromising stories of his affairs in the leadup to the 2016 election.

His bombshell testimony to Congress in 2019 outlined Mr Trump’s allegedly fraudulent business practices, building on years of allegations of fraud, and prompted several criminal and civil investigations, including a criminal conviction against Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg.