Judge defends fining Trump $10,000 for breaking gag order

Judge Arthur Engoron on Thursday defended his $10,000 sanction against Donald Trump after the former president violated the gag order barring public comments about members of the judge’s staff, rejecting another appeal by Trump’s attorneys to drop the fine.

Before trial testimony began Thursday morning, Trump’s attorney Chris Kise asked Engoron again to reconsider his fine against Trump. Engoron responded that he would watch the video of Trump’s comments to reporters Wednesday that spurred the fine and reconsider.

“Anybody can run for president. I am going to protect my staff,” Engoron said.

After the court’s first break of the day, Engoron returned and said the fine stood, reaffirming his ruling after watching the video.

There was “a clear transition” between Trump’s comments referring to Engoron’s clerk and a subsequent comment about Michael Cohen, the judge said.

Trump’s legal team indicated they intend to appeal the latest sanctions against the former president. They’ve already appealed two other sets of sanctions imposed in this case so far.

The sanctions against Trump stemmed from his comments in the hallway of the courthouse during a break in the trial Wednesday, while Cohen, his former attorney and fixer, was on the stand.

“This judge is a very partisan judge with a person who is very partisan sitting alongside him – perhaps even much more partisan than he is,” Trump said.

Engoron had put a gag order in place the first week of the trial after Trump had posted on social media attacking his clerk.

The judge also issued a written order expanding on the ruling from Wednesday.

“Using imprecise language as an excuse to create plausible ambiguity about whether defendant violated this Court’s unequivocal gag order is not a defense; the subject of Donald Trump’s public statement to the press was unmistakably clear,” the judge wrote Thursday. “As the trier of fact, I find that Donald Trump was referring to my Principal Law Clerk, as such, he has intentionally violated the gag order.”

Kise made a lengthy application to the judge to reconsider the sanctions ruling, first asserting again that Trump was referring to Michael Cohen in his statement Wednesday. But he also said that if Trump was actually referring to the clerk, he was within his right to do so because it was a comment on his personal perception of bias in the open court proceedings.

“The irony here - the great irony – is on the one hand, you’re saying Mr. Trump is not referring to my law clerk, and then you make this whole argument that she’s sitting right here,” Engoron said, pushing back in the first debate over the fine.

Kise called the trial political and said if Trump had been talking about the clerk, he didn’t name her and he was making an observation about the fairness of his trial, which should be protected under his First Amendment rights.

“I do not consider this trial political at all,” Engoron responded.

First Amendment protections have “limits,” Engoron said, especially when the gag order’s purpose is to protect his staff.

“There’s basically three people. I don’t think it’s impinging on anybody’s First Amendment rights,” he said.

On Wednesday, Kise claimed that Trump was referring to Cohen, not Engoron’s clerk. But the judge did not buy the explanation, and even convened his own impromptu hearing on the matter Wednesday, calling Trump to the witness stand in an extraordinary moment.

In his written order Thursday, Engoron said the explanation Trump gave that he was talking about Cohen did not pass muster.

“Witnesses do not sit ‘alongside’ the judge, they sit in the witness box, separated from the judge by a low wooden barrier,” Engoron wrote, also noting that Trump’s language mirrored his prior attacks against his clerk.

Engoron said it’s within his discretion to have the law clerk sit with him and consult on matters at the bench. He also said it makes him a better judge.

After lunch, Kise asked Engoron to write the gag order in a formal court order, as it’s currently only memorialized in the court transcript. Trump’s attorney also asked to take a photo of the bench so an appellate court could see the layout when interpreting Trump’s comments about the person sitting alongside the judge.

Engoron agreed to put the gag order in a court order, and joked that Engoron could sit in the witness box for the photo because he was about Cohen’s size. Kise responded he wasn’t as photogenic.

Trump, meanwhile, continued attacking Engoron on his social media Thursday.

“The Radical Left Judge who should not be handling the FAKE & FULLY DISCREDITED CASE brought against me by the New York State A.G. (It should be handled by the Commercial Division, but should never have been brought!), fined me $10,000 yesterday under his so-called gag order,” Trump wrote. “He is a judge that found me GUILTY before the trial even started, and long before he had the real facts, like Michael Cohen collapsing and choking yesterday under cross examination, and completely admitting that I did nothing wrong.”

Trump is not in court Thursday. He returned to Florida after leaving the courthouse Wednesday afternoon.

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