NEW YORK (AP) — The judge in Donald Trump’s civil business fraud trial barred attorneys in the case Friday from commenting on “confidential communications” between him and his staff, after the former president’s attorneys renewed claims that a clerk is poisoning the proceedings.
Threatening “serious sanctions” for any violations, Judge Arthur Engoron expanded on a prior gag order that prohibited parties in the trial from speaking publicly about court staffers. The earlier order didn’t mention the parties’ attorneys, but Engoron had suggested Thursday he might expand it.
The matter seized attention on a day when Eric Trump, one of the former president’s sons and a top executive in the family business, wrapped up his testimony. He said he relied completely on accountants and lawyers to assure the accuracy of financial documents that are key to New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit.
The state lawsuit accuses Trump and his company of deceiving banks and insurers by exaggerating his wealth on his annual financial statements. Trump and other defendants, including sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr., deny the allegations.
The former president and current Republican 2024 front-runner is due to testify Monday in the case, which threatens the real estate empire that launched him into the public eye and, eventually, politics.
Like the earlier gag order, the new one was sparked by criticism of the judge’s principal law clerk, Allison Greenfield. She has unexpectedly become a lightning rod during the trial.
“The First Amendment right of defendants and their attorneys to comment on my staff is far and away outweighed by the need to protect them from threats and physical harm,” wrote Engoron. He said his office has gotten “hundreds of harassing and threatening phone calls, voice mails, emails, letters and packages” during the trial.
In response, a spokesperson for Trump lawyer Alina Habba called the case “an attempt to silence the left’s top political opponent.”
“There should be no doubt at this point that politics is now permeating our courts,” the spokesperson, Erica Knight, wrote in a statement. She warned of “a dangerous precedent which diminishes the integrity of the judicial system.”
Hours earlier, Trump attorney Christopher Kise had recapped complaints that the defense team has raised for over a week about the clerk’s notes to the judge during testimony.
The contents of the notes have not been disclosed. But Trump’s lawyers say the messages are more frequent when the defense is questioning witnesses, and the attorneys suggest the notes are tilting the process against their case.
“I certainly am often thinking I’m arguing against two adversaries, not one,” attorney Kise told the judge Friday. “I’m debating with the government, and then I’m debating with someone who is providing input to you on a regular, immediate basis.”
Greenfield ran for a judgeship as a Democrat. Engoron also is a Democrat.
The judge says the accusations of bias and improper influence are false, and he insists that he has an “absolute, unfettered right” to input from his clerk.
Separately on Friday, a federal appeals court temporarily l ifted a gag order on Trump in his 2020 election interference case in Washington.
That order bars Trump from making public statements targeting prosecutors, court staff and potential witnesses in the case accusing him of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election he lost to President Joe Biden. It still allows the former president to assert his innocence and to claim the case against him is politically motivated.
In New York, Trump lawyer Kise had argued anew that if the judge was “receiving input from someone with potentially demonstrable bias” or at least questions about it, defense lawyers need to “make that record.”
A record documenting questions or objections that were raised during a trial would be key to any appeal.
Engoron said the record had been made.
A lawyer for James’ office, Kevin Wallace, called the dispute over the clerk a “sideshow.” He suggested that the defense was “trying to blow up the trial” and seeking “to interrupt our ability to put in evidence.”
Engoron’s action Friday came a month after the initial gag order, spurred by Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about Greenfield in a social media post. Fines followed, after the judge said Trump violated the order.
Trump’s sons are executive vice presidents of the family’s Trump Organization, and they became trustees of a trust set up to run the company when their father went to the White House.
The sons signed, for example, yearly letters that certified their father’s financial wherewithal to lender Deutsche Bank. As Donald Trump Jr. did in testimony earlier this week, Eric Trump told the court Friday that he trusted company finance executives and an outside accounting firm to ensure the information was correct.
“I would not sign something that was not accurate,” he said Friday, his second day on the stand. “I relied on one of the biggest accounting firms in the country. And I relied on a great legal team. And when they gave me comfort that the statement was perfect, I was more than happy to execute.”
Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom, Eric Trump called the case a “charade” and waste of taxpayer dollars.
“We’re going to win this thing. I promise you we’re going to win it because we haven’t done a damn thing wrong,” he said.
Associated Press writer Alanna Durkin Richer contributed from Boston.