Former U.S. President Donald Trump attends his Manhattan courthouse trial in a civil fraud case in New York, U.S., October 18, 2023.
Brendan Mcdermid | Reuters
A New York judge fined Donald Trump $5,000 on Friday after threatening the former president with jail time for violating a partial gag order in his civil fraud trial.
But Manhattan Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron warned that future violations will subject Trump to “far more severe sanctions” — including imprisonment.
The fraud case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, accuses Trump, his two adult sons, his company and top executives of fraudulently inflating the values of their assets to get tax benefits and advantageous loan terms.
Trump has denied wrongdoing, though Engoron has already found the defendants liable for fraud and ordered the dissolution of their New York business certificates. The trial aims to settle six other claims by James, who seeks $250 million in damages and wants to bar the defendants from running a business in New York.
Friday’s fine, while small for Trump, is the first time the ex-president has faced punishment for violating court-ordered restrictions on his speech. Engoron made the decision after discovering that Trump had not fully deleted the social media post that prompted the speech restrictions in the first place.
The judge had imposed a narrow gag order earlier this month after Trump, the leading candidate for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, sent a Truth Social post attacking the judge’s law clerk. Engoron at the time ordered that the post be deleted, and he barred Trump and other parties in the case from making public statements about his staff.
But the post remained up on Trump’s website, donaldjtrump.com, for more than two weeks, archived screenshots of the page show.
The left-leaning website MeidasTouch published an article Thursday about the not-deleted post. The Daily Beast reported that that article led attorneys on both sides of the trial to be notified about the post, which was ultimately removed Thursday night.
Engoron laced into Trump in court Friday morning.
“This is a blatant violation of the gag order. I made it clear failure to comply will result in serious sanctions,” the judge said. “It remained on the Donald J. Trump campaign site and in fact it has been on there for the past 17 days, [and] it was removed late last night after an email from this court.”
Trump was not in court to hear the rebuke, having left New York on Wednesday after attending two more days of the civil trial.
Defense attorney Christopher Kise apologized on Trump’s behalf, saying the violation was unintentional.
Engoron said he would take Kise’s remarks “under advisement,” but added that Trump “is still responsible for what appears on the site.”
“I want to make clear that Mr. Trump is responsible for the large machine, even if it is a large machine,” the judge said, according to NBC.
In his written order Friday afternoon, Engoron said that the effect of the post on the clerk remains, regardless of whether or not it was left up intentionally.
“Moreover, a defendant may not evade liability for violating a court order by assertion that the violation was a result of the actions of one or more of the defendant’s employees or agents,” Engoron wrote.
“In the current overheated climate, incendiary untruths can, and in some cases already have, led to serious physical harm, and worse,” he wrote.
Trump has “received ample warning” about the consequences of violating his gag order, and he has vowed to abide by it, wrote the judge. “Accordingly, issuing yet another warning is no longer appropriate; this Court is way beyond the ‘warning’ stage.”
Still, Engoron decided to impose the $5,000 fine because it was a first-time violation, and because the Trump’s attorneys insisted it was not intentional.
“Make no mistake,” Engoron added. “Future violations, whether intentional or unintentional will subject the violator to far more severe sanctions, which may include, but are not limited to, steeper financial penalties, holding Donald Trump in contempt of court, and possibly imprisoning him” in accordance with state law.
Judge Arthur Engoron is seen in the courtroom before the start of the third day of the civil fraud trial of former US President Donald Trump, in New York on October 4, 2023.
Mary Altaffer | AFP | Getty Images
Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer who expects to testify against him next Tuesday, said he doubted Kise’s explanation.
“Donald knows exactly what he is doing and any statements to the contrary are misguided,” Cohen said in a statement to CNBC. “It is all about his intent to intimidate. Plain and simple.”
Engoron’s gag order isn’t the only limit on Trump’s speech in legal matters. A federal judge in Washington, D.C., in mid-October imposed a partial gag order in special counsel Jack Smith’s criminal case accusing Trump of conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden. Trump has pleaded not guilty in that case.
That gag order, which followed many posts by Trump attacking various parties in the case, barred him from publicly targeting the special counsel and potential witnesses. Trump’s attorneys are appealing that order.
— CNBC’s Dan Mangan contributed reporting.