© Reuters. Judge Arthur F. Engoron attends the Trump Organization civil fraud trial, in New York State Supreme Court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., November 6, 2023. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid/Pool
By Jonathan Stempel
NEW YORK (Reuters) – As Donald Trump on Monday began using his time on the witness stand at his civil fraud trial to air grievances and avoid direct answers to questions, Arthur Engoron, the trial judge and a prime Trump target, decided enough was enough.
“Mr. Kise, can you control your client?” Engoron asked Trump’s lawyer, Christopher Kise. “This is not a political rally. This is a courtroom.”
It wasn’t the first time the 74-year-old Engoron, a former taxicab driver who has spent two decades on the bench, lost patience with the defense in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit.
James has accused Trump, his family business, his adult sons and many other defendants of manipulating financial statements, asset values and Trump’s net worth to defraud banks and insurers.
Since the trial began in a downtown Manhattan courtroom one month ago, Engoron has fined the former U.S. president twice for violating a gag order barring him from criticizing the judge’s law clerk, and on Nov. 3 expanded that order to cover Trump’s lawyers.
Trump, a Republican, criticized James while on the witness stand, saying the Democrat “should be ashamed of herself” for leading what he again called a “political witch hunt.”
He was also unsparing with Engoron, a Democrat and American Civil Liberties Union member, telling the courtroom that on a question of law “I’m sure the judge will rule against me because he always rules against me.”
During Monday’s proceedings, Engoron threatened to cut off Trump’s defiant, often rambling testimony.
When Trump resisted answering a yes-or-no question from a lawyer from James’ office on the valuation of a Wall Street office tower, Engoron interrupted.
“We got another speech” from Trump, he told Kise. “I beseech you to control him if you can. If you can’t, I will.”
TRUMP’S ‘FANTASY WORLD’
The criticisms mirrored displeasure that Engoron, who is hearing the case without a jury, has often shown the defense, last year holding Trump in contempt for ignoring a subpoena.
Engoron ruled in September that Trump’s financial statements contained fraud.
That left for trial whether Trump and the other defendants should pay the $250 million in penalties that James wants, and whether to ban Trump from New York state real estate business.
Engoron’s earlier ruling, too, was unsparing, saying the defendants lived in a “fantasy world” by claiming he could ignore any asset valuations, and that Trump might have built his fortune on something less savory than “savvy investing.”
The notoriety of Trump’s case is a big change for a judge who, while not shy about using colorful language in the past, has spent most of his 44-year legal career in New York out of the public eye.
In two of his recent higher-profile decisions, Engoron halted developers’ plans to build a condominium on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that critics called far too tall, and giant apartment buildings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Though both decisions were overturned on appeal, John Low-Beer, a lawyer who argued against the condominium, called Engoron “very concerned about understanding the case and the applicable law completely, and to get it right.”
Engoron graduated from Columbia University and New York University’s law school.
He spent more than a decade in private practice and 12 years clerking for a state judge before becoming a civil court judge in 2003. Voters elected him to the state Supreme Court, a trial court, in 2015.