Tuesday, October 3rd 2023, 3:05 pm
The judge overseeing the civil trial of former President Donald Trump in New York issued a gag order on Tuesday barring those involved in the case from posting information about court staff online after an inflammatory post identifying the judge's clerk appeared on Trump's social media account.
Shortly after returning from an extended lunch break on the second day of the trial, New York Judge Arthur Engoron addressed a simmering conflict that arose midday.
"Consider this statement a gag order forbidding all parties from posting" on social media about members of his staff, he said.
The post in question was posted by Trump's account on his social media platform Truth Social earlier in the day. It included a photo of the clerk alongside Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, and a link to what appeared to be her private Instagram profile. Trump inaccurately referred to the clerk, Allison Greenfield, as Schumer's "girlfriend" and called for the case to be dismissed.
An attorney for Trump did not answer questions about the post after it was made.
The post disappeared after Trump and his attorneys met with the judge overseeing the case during a break in proceedings on Tuesday.
Trump was in the courtroom for the second day of his trial on civil charges alleging he and his company falsified business and personal records for financial gain. At about 1 p.m., the courtroom cleared for its usual lunch break. Minutes later, after reporters and other members of the public were shepherded out, attorneys for both sides returned to the courtroom. Reporters were barred from reentering for about 15 minutes.
Soon after Trump and his attorneys left, the post about Greenfield disappeared from his website.
Greenfield has been by Engoron's side during nearly every hearing in the case for years, and is often given the opportunity to question lawyers on his behalf. She has had at times heated exchanges with members of Trump's legal team over intricacies of New York law. She has not yet questioned lawyers during the trial.
While it was not immediately clear what transpired during the closed-door meeting with the judge on Tuesday, Trump's social media posts targeting prosecutors, judges and others involved in his separate criminal cases have been the subject of court fights about what he can and can't say publicly.
In August, special counsel Jack Smith, who is prosecuting Trump in two federal cases, asked U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan to impose a protective order limiting what the former president can say about the case related to alleged attempts to overturn the 2020 election. Citing a slew of posts on Truth Social, prosecutors accused Trump of making "inflammatory public statements" that sought to influence potential jurors and intimidate witnesses.
Smith asked Chutkan to issue a "narrowly tailored" order barring Trump from making statements "regarding the identity, testimony, or credibility of prospective witnesses," and "about any party, witness, attorney, court personnel, or potential jurors that are disparaging and inflammatory, or intimidating." He cited one post in which Trump wrote in all caps: "If you go after me, I'm coming after you!"
Trump's attorneys said the request was "nothing more than an obvious attempt by the Biden administration to unlawfully silence its most prominent political opponent."
Chutkan has yet to rule on the proposed order. But in a hearing on Aug. 11, Chutkan warned Trump's lawyers that there are limits to what their client can say and reminded them of the conditions of his release while awaiting trial.
"Your client's defense is supposed to happen in this courtroom, not on the internet," she said. More "inflammatory" statements about the case would increase her urgency in bringing the case to trial to protect the pool of prospective jurors, the judge said.
"I will take whatever measures are necessary to safeguard the integrity of these proceedings," Chutkan said.
In the New York case, Engoron ruled last week against Trump and the other co-defendants on one of the civil charges brought by state Attorney General Letitia James, finding before the trial got underway that they engaged in business fraud. The trial is now focused on the remaining charges in the suit, related to alleged falsification of business records, issuing false financial statements and conspiracy.
Trump, the Trump Organization, several executives and two of his children — Donald Jr. and Eric — are the defendants in the civil trial in New York Superior Court. They will not face any jail time if found liable, since the charges are civil in nature, not criminal.
Trump appeared for the first day of the trial on Monday, where a packed crowd gathered to observe the proceedings. Outside the courtroom, he harshly criticized James and Engoron over the case, which he called a "witch hunt" and a "disgrace."
The trial kicked off with opening statements from both sides and the appearance of the state's first witness.
Kevin Wallace, the lead attorney for James' office, delivered a 65-slide presentation outlining the remaining allegations in the case, which center on the preparation of allegedly false business records and personal financial statements over a number of years. The state alleges Trump and the company fraudulently crafted the documents in order to inflate the worth of the Trump Organization's assets and the former president's own wealth in order to obtain more favorable loan terms.
"The defendants knew that the statements were false, they then used them to pursue and obtain financial benefits," Wallace said.
Attorneys for the defendants countered with their own opening statements, with Trump lawyer Christopher Kise saying the valuations were appropriate and accurate. He said Trump's personal financial statements used a different accounting standard than the company's statements, and said the defense would call witnesses who can attest to their soundness.
Wallace and his team called accountant Donald Bender from the accounting firm Mazars, which oversaw Trump and the company's books for more than 30 years, as their first witness. He described the process by which he compiled financial statements based on information provided by the Trump Organization. He said he departed from generally accepted accounting principles, known as GAAP, for some of the Trump Organization's business entities at the direction of the company. Bender testified that he would not have signed off on these statements if he had known that the information provided by the company was not true.
Bender was back on the stand on Tuesday, resuming his year-by-year explanation of the financial records at issue in the case.
Kise, the Trump attorney, objected to many of the documents shown, arguing the relevant statute of limitations prohibited evidence from before either 2014 or 2016, depending on the document. Engoron overruled those objections, having found on Monday that material prior to 2014 is admissible. Wallace told the judge the state intends to tie the earlier documents to loans that matured at a later date within the statute of limitations.
Bender said Mazars would not have issued a statement of financial condition — or SOFC, essentially a snapshot of Trump's personal finances — if the firm believed the material was untrue. In 2022, Mazars declined to issue an SOFC for the prior year, dropped Trump as a client and recanted a decade of SOFCs.
Beginning in 2013, Bender said he asked the Trump Organization to provide any available property appraisals when he was preparing SOFCs. He said he learned about three years ago that there were appraisals he did not receive, adding that he found out during a Zoom interview with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.
That office later charged two Trump Organization companies and former Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg with tax fraud. Weisselberg entered a guilty plea and the companies were found guilty in December 2022 on 17 related counts.
Four months later, a Manhattan grand jury indicted Trump with 34 felony counts of falsification of business records. He entered a not guilty plea in the case.
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