On the first day of Donald Trump’s testimony in New York, the judge presiding over the former president’s fraud case tried to do what Hillary Clinton, a row of prominent debate moderators and even Trump’s lawyers couldn’t: make him stop talking.
It was an unusual close-range confrontation. Arthur Engoron, a 74-year-old judge who likes to joke, sat just a few feet away from the prickly, grinning former president who bluffed his way into the White House.
When Trump took the witness stand Monday morning, his penchant for long monologues immediately seemed to irritate Judge Engoron. After Trump gave a particularly long answer, the judge turned around, asked Trump to restrain himself and said he would like to continue. “Please no speeches,” he told the former president. Trump grinned.
Engoron then begged one of Trump’s lawyers, Christopher Kise, to keep his client under control. “This is not a political meeting,” he said. When Kise said the judge should listen to the former president, Engoron disagreed. He said many of Trump’s comments were irrelevant. Trump paused for a moment before resuming his testimony.
Sometime early in the day, an exasperated Judge Engoron suggested he could use some of the considerable power he has over witnesses to rein in Trump — including removing the former president from the stand entirely.
Such a move would have been damaging to Trump. It would have allowed the judge to make negative assumptions about questions that the former president did not answer. For Democrats and others who have long fantasized about Trump getting his comeuppance, the possibility was tantalizing.
After the mid-morning break, the judge suddenly seemed less interested in cutting off Trump’s off-topic monologues. He allowed Trump to speak at length as the former president praised one of his golf courses as “an artistic expression” and also attacked prosecutor Letitia James and defense attorney Kevin Wallace.
The judge also explained why he suddenly gave Trump more leeway: according to him, lawyer Wallace seemed to be happy with what he got from his combative witness.
And so Judge Engoron said nothing when Trump referred to James as a “political opportunist,” and nothing when the former president also directly attacked him as a “con man.”
Instead of a war of words, the two septuagenarians turned the courtroom into a contest of irritated expressions. The judge frowned, Trump beamed. The judge grinned sarcastically, Trump grinned, and then grinned some more.
As Judge Engoron repeatedly overruled Trump’s lawyers’ objections, Trump turned away from him again and again and grinned. He grinned and tilted his head. He grinned and shrugged. He grinned and looked at the ceiling.
But when the judge gave him more leeway, Trump took it.
At one point he pointed directly at the judge and confronted him with a past ruling. “He called me a fraud and he doesn’t know anything about me!” Trump said.
By midday, Trump made his disdain explicit through his facial expressions, punctuated by occasional outbursts. “You have no case,” he told Wallace. “This case is a shame.”
These comments remained without comment from the judge. But Engoron had a line he wouldn’t let the former president cross. Shortly before the lunch break, Trump asked if he could read a disclaimer on his annual accounts.
“I would like to read this, your honor, if I may,” the former president said, trying to be equally charming.
The judge told him he was not allowed to do that at that time.
“What a shock,” Trump said with a sarcastic expression.
© The New York Times