Judge Arthur Engoron wanted to hear directly from Donald Trump.
After Trump earlier Wednesday had apparently spoken about Engoron’s law clerk – in violation of the judge’s gag order – Engoron briefly paused the New York civil fraud trial testimony and said he was “going to hold a hearing right now” on the matter and would call his first witness: Donald J. Trump.
Engoron asked Trump if he would like to be on the witness stand. Trump didn’t hesitate, pushing back his seat at the defense table instantly to stand and walk into the witness box. Wearing a blue tie, pinstripe shirt and navy suit, Trump raised his right hand, and swore to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Trump’s surprise appearance as a witness under questioning from the judge was an astonishing moment even in a year of unprecedented firsts for a former president who has been indicted four times and now faces the prospect of criminal trials all playing out while he runs for the White House in 2024.
This episode – where Trump’s alleged violation of a gag order by attacking his perceived opponents could, in theory, have led to his imprisonment – was a stark reminder of the difficulty he will face navigating his campaign rhetoric with the legal realities and constraints of the courtroom.
Once Trump was on the stand, Engoron put on his lawyer hat and launched into a calm interrogation of the former president, reading back what Trump had told reporters outside the courtroom only hours earlier.
“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 had said.
Before lunch, Trump’s lawyers claimed his statement was not about the judge’s clerk, but about Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, the witness who had also been sitting next to the judge. It was a claim that strained credulity, given Trump’s previous attacks.
But Engoron wanted to hear it directly from Trump.
“To whom were you referring,” Engoron asked Trump about his comments in the hallway.
“You and Cohen,” Trump said.
“Are you sure you didn’t mean the person on the other side?” Engoron asked, a reference to his clerk, who was still seated, keeping a straight face, just to his right.
“Yes,” I’m sure,” Trump responded.
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During the first week of the trial, Engoron enforced a gag order barring parties from speaking about his staff, in response to a social media post from Trump attacking Engoron’s clerk and showing a picture of her with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat.
Trump had already been fined last week $5,000 because his post hadn’t been taken down from his website, something his lawyers said was in inadvertent, and warned there would be more severe penalties for additional violations – even threatening imprisonment.
On Wednesday, Engoron warned Trump and his attorneys that he was protective of his staff in an “overheated environment.” And while the website post may have been inadvertent, he said, Trump’s comments that morning were “obviously intentional.”
“I don’t want anyone killed,” the judge said.
Engoron wasn’t done yet with his questions, asking the former president whether he had referred to his clerk in the past as a partisan Democrat.
“I think she’s very biased against us. I think we’ve made that clear,” Trump said, noting they had “put up a picture” that the judge didn’t want up and then they had then taken it down.
Engoron then turned to Trump, asking whether he always referred to Cohen “as Michael Cohen?”
Trump responded no, and his lawyers piped in to note Trump had much more derogatory ways he talked about his former lawyer and fixer.
Engoron then asked whether any other lawyers wanted to question Trump. None stepped forward, and he excused his witness.
Once Trump was seated, Engoron said, “As the trier of fact, I find that the witness is not credible,” noting Trump’s past comments about his clerk and the fact there was a barrier between the judge and Cohen in the witness box.
Engoron said he was fining Trump $10,000 for his comments.
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The ruling prompted an objection from Trump’s attorneys, who argued it couldn’t be proven who Trump was referring to. They also took the opportunity to complain about the clerk’s outsized role sitting beside Engoron – after attorney Alina Habba had already accused the clerk in the morning of making “eye rolls” at the Trump team’s questions.
“I do not like having eyes rolled,” Habba said. “I do not like being yelled at by law clerks who did not earn the robe.”
Engoron said he would reconsider his motion, but noted that the complaints being raised were merely proving “my exact point” that Trump was concerned about the clerk when he spoke.
“I’ve reconsidered, the ruling stands,” Engoron said. “Don’t do it again or it’ll be worse.”
Trump did not visibly react to Engoron, staring straight ahead as the court proceedings got back underway and Cohen returned to the stand. He remained through most of the testimony with his arms folded, watching Cohen testify under cross-examination from his attorney, Cliff Robert.
But as Cohen’s testimony wrapped up, the former president threw up his arms alongside Habba, seated beside him, after Cohen testified that Trump had not directly told him to inflate his financial statements, contradicting his earlier testimony. (Cohen later clarified that Trump didn’t ask him directly but he implied it by speaking like a “mob boss.”)
Robert then turned back to Engoron and made a motion for a directed verdict to dismiss the trial because Cohen was a key witness for the New York attorney general.
“Denied,” Engoron immediately responded.
At that, Trump had enough, standing up and storming out of the courtroom with Cohen still on the stand. He appeared noticeably agitated when he spoke briefly to the camera in the hallway outside the courtroom, taking no questions. “We won this trial,” Trump said before leaving the hallway.
But it turns out that Trump wasn’t done. When the court session concluded for the day, Trump returned to the courtroom with his attorneys, who stayed along with the judge and the attorney general’s team for roughly 45 minutes.
When Trump came out, he didn’t divulge what was discussed behind closed doors but renewed his attack on the judge and his complaint that the trial doesn’t have a jury one more time on his way out the door.
“That should be the end of the case,” Trump said. “If we had a jury, this case would’ve never started, practically.”
CNN’s Sabrina Souza contributed to this report.