The New York judge overseeing a case that could collapse Donald Trump’s business empire has expanded a gag order to include the former president’s attorneys after their in-court comments about his chief clerk.
The judge imposed a gag order earlier this month that blocks any parties from making comments about the court’s staff after the former president made a series of false and disparaging remarks about her outside the courtroom and on his Truth Social account.
Mr Trump already has violated the order twice, incurring $15,000 in fines.
After hours of testimony from Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump this week, which lawyers for the office of New York Attorney General Letitia James said were “extremely” favourable in their case targeting the Trump Organization, lead attorney Christopher Kise launched into a tirade on Friday about the clerk’s perceived “bias”, allegations outlined in a right-wing news website, and what he feels like are “two adversaries” on the bench.
Mr Kise drew audible groans and laughter from the courtroom when he pointed to allegations about the clerk that appeared in Breitbart, a website formerly operated by Mr Trump’s former aide Steve Bannon.
“I’ll let everyone in the room decide what they think about Breitbart,” the judge said.
The article in Breitbart is solely sourced from the man who claims to be behind a social media account (which describes itself as “like a clandestine intelligence organization”) filled with false and inflammatory statements surrounding the case. False attacks from the account that targeted Judge Engoron’s clerk Allison Greenfield were shared by Mr Trump, which prompted the judge’s gag order.
That man, Brock Fredin, also launched a website using Ms Greenfield’s name one day after that gag order was imposed.
“I think the defense will have to make serious consideration to seeking a mistrial” if those allegations are substantiated, Mr Kise told the judge on Friday.
Kevin Wallace with the office of attorney general criticised the Trump attorneys’ “sideshow” that he said is “designed to interrupt our ability to put an end to this.”
“If there’s something improper between a judge and a clerk passing notes, you should make your motion now,” he added.
In an order issued on Friday afternoon, the judge said Mr Trump’s attorneys have made “on the record, repeated, inappropriate remarks” about Ms Greenfield, “falsely accusing her of bias against them and improperly influencing the ongoing bench trial.”
“These arguments have no basis,” the judge wrote.
“As I have stated on the record, seemingly to no avail, my law clerks are public servants who are performing their jobs in the manner in which I request,” the judge continued.
Mr Trump’s lawyers “are not entitled to the confidential communications amongst me and my court staff, who are hired specifically to aid me in carrying out my adjudicative responsibilities,” he added. “Nor are they entitled to continue referencing my staff in the record.”
The judge also shot down “unpersuasive” First Amendment arguments, pointing to threats of political violence that have surrounded Mr Trump’s criminal and civil cases.
“The threat of, and actual, violence resulting from heated political rhetoric is well-documented,” he wrote. “Since the commencement of this bench trial, my chambers have been inundated with hundreds of harassing and threatening phone calls, voicemails, emails, letters, and packages. The First Amendment right of defendants and their attorneys to comment on my staff is far and away outweighed by the need to protect them from threats and physical harm.”
Judge Engoron said attorneys’ failure to abide by the terms of the order will result in “serious sanctions” against them.
The heated exchanges came moments before Eric Trump’s final round of questioning on the witness stand.
His father and co-defendant in the case is next. Mr Trump will testify on Monday.
Ivanka Trump, who successfully removed herself as a co-defendant in the attorney general’s $250m lawsuit earlier this year, will testify on Wednesday. She lost her appeals to block or delay her testimony.
The lawsuit alleges that the former president, his adult sons and their chief associates defrauded financial institutions for years by inflating his net worth and assets to fraudulently obtain favourable business deals.
In September, Judge Engoron issued a summary judgment finding the defendants liable for fraud. The trial, which could last through the weekend before Christmas, is considering the attorney general’s attempts to recover tens of millions of dollars from the Trumps’ allegedly ill-gotten gains.
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