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Former US president Donald Trump. Picture: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS
Former US president Donald Trump. Picture: BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS

New York — Donald Trump was fined $10,000 on Wednesday after the New York judge overseeing his civil fraud trial said the former US president violated a gag order for a second time.

Justice Arthur Engoron on October 3 barred Trump from disparaging court staff after Trump shared on social media a photo of the judge’s top clerk posing with US Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, and falsely called her Schumer’s “girlfriend”.

During a trial break on Wednesday in the civil lawsuit brought by New York attorney-general Letitia James concerning Trump’s business practices, Trump told reporters, “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.”

Engoron, surmising that Trump was referring to his clerk, called the comments a “blatant” violation of the gag order. The judge imposed the fine after Trump briefly took the witness box to take questions.

Engoron’s clerk has been sitting next to the judge during the trial, which is standard practice in a New York state court.

Alina Habba, one of Trump’s lawyers, told Engoron she saw the clerk appear to roll her eyes while Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, was testifying against his former boss, and that this was “completely inappropriate”.

Engoron rejected a suggestion by another Trump lawyer, Christopher Kise, that the “partisan” person Trump was referring to was Cohen.

“The idea that that statement would refer to the witness, that doesn't make sense to me,” Engoron said. “Don’t do it again or it will be worse.”

On October 20, Engoron fined Trump $5,000 after finding he had not taken down a post disparaging the law clerk, and warned that future transgressions could bring “far more severe” sanctions including jail. The judge, when he originally imposed the gag order, said that comments directed at his staff were “unacceptable, inappropriate and will not be tolerated under any circumstances.”

Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic President Joe Biden in the 2024 US election.

Financial incentive

Earlier on Wednesday, Cohen acknowledged under questioning by an attorney for the former president that he has a financial incentive to criticise his former boss but defended his credibility as he testified in the trial.

Cohen, who came face-to-face with Trump for the first time in five years on Tuesday, underwent cross-examination during his second straight day of testimony in a case in which Trump’s family business is accused of unlawfully manipulating its financials to dupe lenders and insurers.

Cohen testified in Manhattan on Tuesday that Trump “arbitrarily” inflated the value of the Trump Organization’s real estate assets to secure favourable insurance premiums. Cohen said he doctored financial statements so the property values matched “whatever number Mr Trump told us”.

Habba on Wednesday asked Cohen about how much money he made from his political podcast and two books he wrote since bitterly cutting ties with Trump and becoming one of his fiercest critics.

“You have a financial incentive to criticise Mr. Trump, yes or no?” Habba asked.

“Yes,” Cohen responded.

Trump has denied wrongdoing in the case and defended the valuations of his properties. Trump separately has pleaded not guilty in four criminal cases this year.

Cohen’s testimony could bolster the attorney-general’s argument that Trump, his company and several of its executives unlawfully inflated property values. The case could break up Trump's business empire.

But Cohen’s admitted record of deceit could undermine his credibility before Engoron, who alone will decide the outcome of the bench trial.

Cohen pleaded guilty to tax fraud, campaign violence violations and perjury in 2018 and was sentenced to three years in prison. He has defended his credibility and said some of his crimes were done at Trump's direction.

Before the trial began on October 2, Engoron found that Trump fraudulently inflated his net worth and ordered the dissolution of companies that control crown jewels of his real estate portfolio, including Trump Tower in Manhattan. That ruling is on hold while Trump appeals.

The trial largely concerns damages. James is seeking at least $250m in fines, a permanent ban against Trump and his sons Donald Jr and Eric from running businesses in New York and a five-year commercial real estate ban against Trump and the Trump Organization.


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