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Judge fines Trump $5,000 after post maligning court staffer found on campaign website

Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom with his legal team before the continuation of his civil business fraud trial at New York Supreme Court, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in New York.
Seth Wenig
/
AP
Former President Donald Trump sits in the courtroom with his legal team before the continuation of his civil business fraud trial at New York Supreme Court, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, in New York.

NEW YORK — Former President Donald Trump was fined $5,000 on Friday after his disparaging social media post about a key court staffer in his New York civil fraud trial lingered on his campaign website for weeks after the judge ordered it deleted.

Judge Arthur Engoron avoided holding Trump in contempt for now, but reserved the right to do so — and possibly even put the 2024 Republican front-runner in jail — if he again violates a limited gag order barring case participants from personal attacks on court staff.

Engoron said in a written ruling that he is "way beyond the 'warning' stage," but that he was only fining Trump a nominal amount because this was a "first time violation" and Trump's lawyers said the website's retention of the post had been inadvertent.

"Make no mistake: future violations, whether intentional or unintentional, will subject the violator to far more severe sanctions, which may include steeper financial penalties, holding Donald Trump in contempt of court, and possibly imprisoning him," Engoron wrote in a two-page order.

Messages seeking comment on the ruling were left with Trump's lawyers and a campaign spokesman.

Trump lawyer Christopher Kise earlier blamed the "very large machine" of Trump's White House campaign for allowing the post to remain on the website after Trump had deleted it from social media, as ordered, calling it an unintentional oversight. It was removed from the website late Thursday after Engoron flagged it to Trump's lawyers.

Trump wasn't in court Friday. He'd been at the trial Tuesday and Wednesday after attending the first three days in early October. Outside court this week, he aimed his enmity at Engoron and New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose fraud lawsuit is being decided at the civil trial. Neither are covered by Engoron's gag order.

Engoron, however, said the buck ultimately stops with Trump — even if it was someone on his campaign who failed to remove the offending post. He gave Trump 10 days to pay the fine.

"I want to be clear that Donald Trump is still responsible for the large machine even if it's a large machine," Engoron said after discussing the matter with Trump's lawyers before testimony resumed Friday morning.

Engoron issued a limited gag order Oct. 3 barring all participants in the case from smearing his staff after Trump maligned principal law clerk Allison Greenfield in a post on Trump's Truth Social platform. The judge ordered Trump to delete the post, which made a baseless insinuation about the clerk's personal life, and warned of "serious sanctions" for violations.

"In the current overheated climate, incendiary untruths can, and in some cases already have, led to serious physical harm, and worse," Engoron wrote Friday.

Before Trump deleted the post from Truth Social, as ordered, his campaign copied the message into an email blast. That email, with the subject line "ICYMI," was automatically archived on Trump's website, Kise said.

The email was sent to about 25,800 recipients on the campaign's media list and opened by about 6,700 of them, Kise told Engoron after obtaining the statistics at the morning break. In all, only 3,700 people viewed the post on Trump's campaign website, the lawyer said.

"What happened appears truly inadvertent," Kise said. The lawyer pleaded ignorance to the technological complexities involved in amplifying Trump's social media posts and public statements, calling the archiving "an unfortunate part of the campaign process."

New York law allows judges to impose fines or imprisonment as punishment for contempt. Last year, Engoron held Trump in contempt and fined him $110,000 for being slow to respond to a subpoena in the investigation that led to the lawsuit.

James' lawsuit accuses Trump and his company of duping banks and insurers by giving them heavily inflated statements of Trump's net worth and asset values. Engoron has already ruled that Trump and his company committed fraud, but the trial involves remaining claims of conspiracy, insurance fraud and falsifying business records.

Trump denies wrongdoing, arguing that a disclaimer on his financial statements absolves him of any culpability and that some of his assets are worth far more than what's listed on the documents. He's called the trial a "sham," a "scam" and "a continuation of the single greatest witch hunt of all time."

The contempt discussion brought unexpected drama to a sleepy Friday ahead of what's shaping up to be a busy week at the Manhattan trial. Trump's onetime lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, now a key state witness, said he'll likely be on the witness stand Tuesday after postponing this week because of a health issue.

Trump and his two eldest sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., are expected to testify in a few weeks. His daughter Ivanka Trump is fighting a subpoena for her testimony. Engoron set a hearing on that dispute for next week.

Ivanka Trump was initially a defendant, but an appeals court dropped her from the case in June after finding that claims against her were outside the statute of limitations. Her lawyer argued in court papers Thursday that state lawyers failed to properly serve her subpoena and that she shouldn't be forced to testify because she isn't a party to the case and lives outside the court's New York jurisdiction.

James' office never questioned Ivanka Trump at a deposition and is now "effectively trying to force her back into this case," her lawyer, Bennet Moskowitz, wrote.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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