Judge in Fraud Trial Tries to Rein in Trump, Something Few Have Done
On the first day of Donald J. Trump’s testimony in Manhattan, the judge presiding over the civil fraud case against the former president tried to do what Hillary Clinton, a star-studded lineup of debate moderators and even Mr. Trump’s own lawyers could not: make Mr. Trump stop talking.
It was an unusual, up-close showdown. Arthur F. Engoron, a 74-year-old judge with a penchant for wisecracks, sat just a few feet away from the prickly, smirking former president whose bluster and bravado helped propel him to the White House.
Almost as soon as Mr. Trump took the stand on Monday morning, his penchant for long monologues appeared to irk Justice Engoron.
After Mr. Trump gave one particularly lengthy answer, the judge turned and asked him to restrain himself, saying that he would like to move things along. “Please no speeches,” he told the former president. Mr. Trump sneered.
Next, Justice Engoron pleaded with one of Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Christopher M. Kise, to control his client. “This is not a political rally,” he said. When Mr. Kise said that the judge should want to hear from the former president, Justice Engoron disagreed, saying that many of Mr. Trump’s comments were irrelevant. Mr. Trump sat silent for a moment before resuming his testimony.
At one point early in the day, an exasperated Justice Engoron suggested that he might wield some of the considerable power he has over witnesses in order to rein in Mr. Trump — including booting the former president from the stand entirely.
Such a move would have been deeply damaging to Mr. Trump’s case; it would have permitted the judge to make negative assumptions about questions that the former president did not answer. For Democrats and others who have long fantasized about Mr. Trump getting what they saw as a comeuppance, that possibility was tantalizing.
But after the midmorning break, the judge appeared less interested in cutting off Mr. Trump’s off-topic soliloquies. He allowed Mr. Trump to speak at length, as the former president praised one of his golf courses as “an artistic expression” and attacked the state attorney general, Letitia James, and the lawyer questioning him, Kevin Wallace.
The judge explained why he was giving Mr. Trump more latitude: Mr. Wallace, he said, seemed to be happy with what he was getting from his combative witness.
And so Justice Engoron said nothing when Mr. Trump referred to Ms. James as a “political hack” or even when the former president turned and attacked him directly as a fraud.
Rather than a war of words, the two septuagenarians turned the courtroom into a contest of irritated expressions: The judge frowned, Mr. Trump glowered. The judge grinned sarcastically, Mr. Trump smirked — and smirked some more.
As Justice Engoron repeatedly overruled Mr. Trump’s lawyers’ objections, Mr. Trump again and again turned away from him and smirked. He smirked and cocked his head. He smirked and shrugged. He smirked and looked at the ceiling.
But as the judge gave him more leash, Mr. Trump took it.
At one interval, he pointed toward the judge directly and lamented a past ruling. “He called me a fraud and he doesn’t know anything about me!” Mr. Trump said.
By the afternoon, Mr. Trump was letting his facial expressions convey his disdain explicitly, punctuated by the occasional outburst.
“You have no case,” Mr. Trump said to Mr. Wallace at one point. “This case is a disgrace.”
Those comments flew without comment from Justice Engoron. But the judge had a line he would not allow the former president to cross. Shortly before the lunch break, Mr. Trump asked to read a disclaimer that was included on his annual financial statements into the record.
“I’d love to read this, your honor, if I’m allowed to do that,” the former president said, laying on the charm for a moment.
The judge told him he could not, at that point.
“Shocker,” Mr. Trump said, making a sarcastic face.