NEW YORK — Donald Trump was abruptly called to the witness stand and then fined $10,000 on Wednesday after the judge in his civil fraud trial said the former president had violated a gag order. 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 had already ordered all participants in the trial not to comment publicly about his staff. That restriction from Oct. 3 followed a Trump social media post that maligned the judge’s principal law clerk, who sits next to him.
Trump and his lawyers insisted that his comment Wednesday was not about the clerk. They said he was referring to Michael Cohen, a former Trump attorney who had been testifying.
Engoron said Trump’s claim was “not credible,” noting that he sat closer to the clerk than to Cohen.
“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 being taken down – on the judge’s orders – from Trump’s Truth Social media platform.
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 alongside 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 during his roughly two minutes on the stand.
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 of the courtroom, trailed by his son Eric. Donald Trump has attended the trial voluntarily, and he can leave whenever he likes.
The episodes raise questions about whether Trump can abide by court directives that are aimed at reining in his rhetoric while respecting his free speech rights as he campaigns to return to the White House.
Last week in Washington, the judge in Trump’s federal election interference criminal case 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.
Chutkan temporarily lifted the order Friday so she could consider a defense request to pause the restrictions while Trump appeals it.
In the New York case, Cohen returned to the witness stand on Wednesday as the defense team tried to undermine his credibility and question his motives.
After a decade of working as Trump’s fixer, Cohen came under federal scrutiny and broke with his boss in 2018. Cohen soon pleaded guilty to and went to prison 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 denied it.
Cohen became an outspoken Trump foe and a key witness in the New York trial, which stems from a lawsuit brought by the state’s attorney general, Letitia James. She 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.
Cohen testified Tuesday that he and other executives at Trump’s company worked to inflate the estimated values of their employer’s holdings so his financial statements would match a net worth that Trump had set “arbitrarily.”
On cross-examination Wednesday, Trump lawyer Alina Habba confronted Cohen with comments he had made praising Trump, before turning on him, 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.”
Trump’s lawyers also emphasized Cohen’s federal criminal convictions and worked to portray him as a liar. The defense pounced on Cohen’s testimony Tuesday that he had lied when he pleaded guilty to tax evasion and loan application falsehoods – rather, he maintained, his conduct was just a matter of omissions and failure to correct paperwork.
Trump attorney Clifford Robert pressed Wednesday on whether Cohen also lied in congressional testimony in which he said he did not recall being asked by Trump to inflate Trump’s net worth.
Cohen repeatedly declined to answer, but eventually said he stood by the earlier testimony. Robert said the state’s key witness was not credible and asked the judge immediately to issue a verdict in Trump’s favor. Engoron denied the request, and soon Trump left the court.
After Cohen’s testimony wrapped up Wednesday, he said outside court that he had seen “a defeated man” when looking at Trump across the courtroom.
Trump, for his part, said Cohen “was caught lying.”
Trump is expected to testify later in the trial about the allegations in the lawsuit.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin in New York and Alanna Durkin Richer in Boston contributed to this report.