NEW YORK — In an unexpected twist, former President Trump took the witness stand Wednesday in his New York civil trial to defend himself — not against any of the fraud charges he faces in the case but to respond to the judge’s assertion that he had violated a gag order in place.
The surprise, yet brief testimony took place after an afternoon break — before which the star of the day was his ex-fixer Michael Cohen. Cohen’s testimony itself also took an explosive turn during later cross-examination, when he appeared to contradict his own testimony about inflating Trump’s assets.
But it ended up being Trump’s remarks earlier in the day that took center stage.
When Trump took the stand, Judge Arthur Engoron asked him about a comment he made to reporters regarding a “very partisan judge with a person who is very partisan sitting alongside him, perhaps even more partisan than he is.”
The trial judge suggested that the person Trump was referring to was his principal law clerk, who is seated just to the right of the judge, which Trump denied. The gag order earlier imposed barred Trump and other parties in the case from speaking about the judge’s staff.
Trump nodded, then responded, “Yes.”
“To whom were you referring?” Engoron asked.
“You and Cohen,” Trump replied.
“Are you sure that you didn’t mean the person on the other side, my principal law clerk?” Engoron asked.
“Yes, I’m sure,” Trump said.
The former president, when prompted, added that he believes the judge’s clerk is “very biased against us” and explained that he took down the previous Truth Social post that sparked the gag order.
The post, made on Trump’s Truth Social account, falsely derided the clerk as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) “girlfriend” and included personally identifying information about her. A Schumer spokesperson called the post “ridiculous, absurd, and false” in a statement to The Hill.
Engoron ordered Trump to take down the post at the time. While it was removed from Truth Social, it remained on Trump’s campaign website for an additional 17 days. When that was made known to Engoron, the judge imposed a $5,000 fine on Trump for violating the order, warning that another violation could result in serious punishment, including steeper financial penalties, contempt or even jail time.
On the witness stand, Trump said he believed “one of the political groups, or PACs” left the post up, echoing comments his attorney, Chris Kise, made when the post’s presence on his campaign website was discovered.
“I didn’t know they were gonna do that,” Trump said.
Through his short testimony, Trump maintained a glum face and looked intently at the judge. When he trailed back to his seat, he kept his eyes on the floor.
Once Trump was seated, Engoron issued his order fining Trump $10,000 — which he called “on the liberal side.”
“As the trier of fact, I find that the witness is not credible,” Engoron said.
Kise objected to the order, suggesting the judge “presupposed some ill motive” on Trump’s behalf.
Kise and Trump’s other attorneys also claimed that the closeness of Engoron’s clerk to him has essentially made her a “second judge” in the case. The attorneys previously raised issues with Engoron and his clerk’s whispered sidebars, which sometimes include eye-rolling or sighs of exasperation.
Engoron rejected their objections and their assertions about his clerk’s role in his decision-making.
“I make the final decisions,” Engoron said.
After the fine was imposed, Cohen retook the stand to continue his cross-examination by Clifford Robert, an attorney for Trump’s sons.
Cohen’s apparent contradictions began to catch up with him when confronted with his testimony and previously glowing words about his ex-client being used against him.
Robert presented Cohen with a transcript from his 2019 testimony about Trump’s business practices — the same testimony that New York Attorney General Letitia James has said inspired her case against Trump. At that time, Cohen had said that Trump did not direct him to inflate his net worth — which directly contradicted testimony he gave earlier this week.
“Mr. Trump never directed you to inflate the numbers in his personal statement. Yes or no?” Robert asked Cohen after a heated back and forth, where Cohen avoided answering the question.
“Yes,” Cohen said.
Trump threw his hands in the air and looked around the room, as did another of his attorneys, Alina Habba. Robert asked for an immediate directed verdict after asserting that the government’s “key witness” testified he was not directed by Trump to inflate the numbers. Without skipping a beat, Engoron denied the order.
Trump scoffed, stood abruptly and stormed out of the courtroom in a huff. His Secret Service detail followed, leaving the gallery in a stunned silence.
Throughout Cohen’s two-day testimony, Trump and his legal team sought to discredit him to Engoron, calling Trump’s former lawyer a criminal and a “proven liar.” Cohen pleaded guilty to several crimes — including making a hush money payment central to Trump’s separate criminal indictment in New York — and was sentenced to three years in prison, though he earned early release due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prosecutor Colleen Faherty attempted to rehabilitate Cohen’s testimony by allowing him to respond; Cohen suggested that Trump’s legal team was “cherry-picking” his past testimony to pigeonhole him into contradicting himself. He said Trump “speaks like a mob boss” and “tell[s] you without specifically telling you” what to do.
He read additional comments from the 2019 transcript that Trump’s attorneys referred to on cross-examination, which reiterated his testimony that Trump wanted them to inflate his net worth to be “higher on the Forbes [billionaire’s] list.”
The government ended its questioning of Cohen, leaving him shaking his head on the stand. After court had ended, Cohen defended his testimony and his “fight” against Trump to reporters, praising Engoron’s decision not to dismiss the case.
“[Trump] will ultimately be held accountable … that’s what this is all about; it’s accountability,” Cohen said.
Updated 5:55 p.m.