A judge hearing Donald Trump’s New York fraud trial spent Wednesday wrestling with a quandary the political world long ago failed to answer: how to constrain the ex-president’s fury, tantrums and impulse to break all the rules.
And on an extraordinary day in court in which he was ordered to take the stand to explain his conduct, Trump may have gotten a glimpse of the future ahead of four criminal trials that will add a divisive twist to the election year.
The judge in New York dressed down once the world’s most powerful man and told him he was not “credible” – a reversal of typical power dynamics with Trump and a reminder that no one is above the law.
Trump’s status as a defendant means he can’t do and say whatever he wants – a dynamic that won’t just play into the current trial but looks like the start of a pattern as the front-runner for the 2024 GOP nomination faces additional trials next year.
Two impeachments and an election loss might not have stopped Trump – partly because he’s so good at stoking public anger, creating alternative realities and blurring the truth – but the fact-based environment of the courtroom might.
Trump’s smoldering fury
Trump has appeared to be smoldering through much of this fraud trial, which could see his eponymous empire barred from doing business in New York. Judge Arthur Engoron ruled even before it started that Trump, his firm and adult sons had defrauded banks and insurance firms by inflating the value of his assets – which the former president has appealed. But Trump’s frustration seemed to boil over in bizarre incidents on Wednesday.
First, Trump appeared to make a new attack on the judge’s clerk in defiance of a gag order. He remarked to reporters that Engoron was very partisan and had a “very partisan person sitting alongside him.” The judge called a hearing to probe the comment and ended up fining the ex-president $10,000 for breaching a narrow gag order prohibiting him from targeting court staff. Trump denied the accusation and insisted he’d been referring to his former fixer, Michael Cohen, who also sat next to the judge during his testimony against his one-time boss.
It was not the first time Trump was fined for violating the gag order. Last week, he was slapped with a $5,000 penalty for not taking down a social media post attacking Engoron’s clerk.
“Don’t do it again or it’ll be worse,” Engoron said, in the kind of rebuke that Trump – who has been the dominant figure in every room for decades – rarely hears.
The fines are a drop in the bucket for someone as wealthy as Trump, even if his fortune is not quite as large as he claims, which is an issue at the heart of this case. And these sums are unlikely to make a former president used to saying exactly what he wants pipe down. But it is a small taste of the consequences that the legal system could impose in several trials – over his business, his attempts to overturn the 2020 election, his hoarding of classified documents and a hush money payment to an adult film star – that will become entangled with his presidential election campaign during the next year. Trump denies wrongdoing in all pending cases.
Later, Trump turned on the histrionics again, storming out of the courtroom after the judge refused to dismiss the case based on seemingly inconsistent testimony by Cohen over whether his former boss asked him to inflate financial statements. “I’m leaving,” Trump exclaimed and headed out the large doors of the courtroom. Engoron rejected the motion absolutely, contradicting the Trump team’s claim that Cohen was the key witness. “There’s enough evidence in this case to fill this courtroom,” he remarked. (As CNN’s Jeremy Herb and Lauren del Valle noted in a dispatch from the courtroom, Cohen later clarified that Trump didn’t ask him directly but he implied it by speaking like a “mob boss.”)
Trump’s habit of providing running commentary to reporters on the case, which is not televised, suggests that he’s something of a nightmare client for attorneys. That dynamic could become a feature of his future trials and land him in even more trouble. But his behavior is consistent with his method of using his fame and high profile to shape perceptions. As lawyers try the case inside the courtroom, Trump’s conducting his own public trial outside in the corridor. “We are being railroaded here,” Trump said Wednesday. “This is a very unfair thing.”
But unlike when he was a tycoon and president, Trump’s outbursts can’t get him what he wants because the customs of the court and the constraints of the law are impervious to emotional and political arguments. CNN senior legal analyst Elie Honig said that an aggressive cross-examination of Cohen is fair game for Trump’s legal team but that inconsistencies in testimony don’t just end a case. “It doesn’t mean game over, let’s go home,” Honig said.
How courtroom defenses morphed into a political campaign
Trump’s counter-narrative is clearly meant to bolster his broader campaign strategy of painting himself as a victim of a legal system weaponized by President Joe Biden to doom his 2024 White House bid. This has been a potent political weapon as he laps the field in the GOP primary and has helped him boost fundraising accounts that he’s using to pay legal bills. Delivering his provocative one-liners also ensures Trump stays in the news and drowns out his campaign rivals.
Engoron is not the only judge trying to work out how to handle the rule-breaking Trump. Judge Tanya Chutkan, who is overseeing the federal election subversion trial in Washington, is having a similar problem. She’s temporarily frozen her earlier gag order — to protect witnesses, court staff and prosecutors from Trump’s social media attacks — pending briefs on his request to pause the order while his appeal plays out.
But before initially imposing the measure, Chutkan had warned Trump that his status as a criminal defendant means there are limitations on what he can say about a case. “He does not have the right to say and do exactly what he pleases,” Chutkan told Trump’s lawyers in court earlier this month. The ex-president’s team has responded to the dispute by arguing that Chutkan and the Biden administration Justice Department are seeking to silence him in order to squelch his presidential campaign.
Trump found support in a surprising corner in that case Wednesday. The American Civil Liberties Union and its Washington, DC, chapter filed an amicus brief in support of the former president, arguing the that the breadth of the order violates his First Amendment rights. But also on Wednesday, prosecutors asked Chutkan to reinstate the order, arguing in their filing that Trump has already resumed posting about potential witnesses on social media — pointing to his Truth Social post about former chief of staff Mark Meadows earlier this week.
Trump has demonstrated throughout a business and political career known for impunity that he can act and speak how he pleases. And now that sense of convention-busting entitlement is forming the foundation of his defense in his legal cases.
In the federal election subversion matter, for instance, Trump’s team is arguing that that the ex-president’s efforts to overturn the election fell within the remit of his official duties and that he is therefore immune from prosecution for acts that took place while he was in office. Special counsel Jack Smith has pushed back, arguing that this would mean that a sitting president could behave in an illegal fashion in multiple ways while knowing that he was forever free from prosecution.
In office, Trump frequently argued there could be no checks on his behavior. “When somebody’s the president of the United States, the authority is total, and that’s the way it’s got to be,” Trump said at a coronavirus briefing at the White House in April 2020. And at a speech in Washington in 2019, he falsely claimed that a Constitution written specifically to prevent monarchial omnipotence gave him total authority. “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president,” he said.
But Trump’s half-baked constitutional arguments suggest that if he wins the presidency back in November 2024, a second term that he has promised would be about “retribution” would be even more lawless than his first. He has already warned he’d use the legal system to go after his enemies.
“There will be no guardrails,” former Rep. Liz Cheney, a Wyoming Republican who effectively sacrificed her career by opposing Trump, told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
For now, Trump is finding that there are guardrails in the legal system. But if he becomes president again, all bets are off.