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Trump seeks mistrial in N.Y. fraud case, alleges bias by judge

By Erik Larson and Patricia Hurtado Bloomberg

Donald Trump is seeking a mistrial in New York state’s $250 million civil fraud lawsuit against the former president, alleging the judge and his law clerk have tainted the proceedings with rampant political bias.

The long-shot request, filed Wednesday in Manhattan, is the latest clash between Trump’s legal team and Justice Arthur Engoron, who ultimately will decide the case. The judge has already issued a gag order against Trump and his lawyers over comments about the law clerk, who has no authority in the case. Trump has been fined a total of $15,000 for twice violating the order.

According to the filing by Trump attorneys Alina Habba and Christopher Kise, the judge has “impermissibly exceeded its discretion in granting his Principal Law Clerk unprecedented status and input into these proceedings and restricted the speech of anyone who seeks to comment on this status.”

The motion is the latest twist in the trial of a suit filed last year by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who claims Trump inflated the value of his assets by as much as $3.6 billion a year to get better terms from banks and insurers. It’s one of six trials Trump is facing as he seeks to return to the White House in 2024. He denies wrongdoing in all the cases, claiming they’re part of a “witch hunt.”

Engoron has frequently defended the way he works with his law clerk, telling Trump’s lawyers during the trial that he has an absolute right to communicate with her and receive advice, while adding that all final decisions are made by him alone. But that hasn’t swayed Trump’s lawyers, who call the relationship “improper” in their mistrial request.

‘Civil servant’

“She’s a civil servant,” the judge said Nov. 2, after Kise complained about the clerk passing him a note while Trump was being questioned under oath on the witness stand. “She’s doing what I ask her to do, which is help me process cases and decide them correctly.”

The once-obscure judicial aide was first thrust into the spotlight last month when Trump posted an image of her online and falsely accused her of dating Democratic U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer and “running this case against me.” The incident resulted in an Oct. 3 gag order barring him from discussing the clerk publicly.

The judge has “allowed his Principal Law Clerk to preside on the bench with him to his right-hand side,” the defense team said in the Wednesday filing. It includes photographs of Engoron and the clerk seated at the bench, which Trump lawyers say shows she “is given unprecedented and inappropriate latitude.”

Engoron violated the court’s code of judicial conduct by publicly commenting on the proceeding, according to the filing. Habba claimed in the court document that the judge posted links to news articles disparaging Trump and his lawyer on a newsletter for alumni of the Wheatley School, which she described as “beyond the pale.”

The filing accused the clerk of improperly donating to Democratic campaigns and causes during the litigation between Trump and the state, including giving money to candidates who were critical of Trump. The filing also complained about the clerk personally campaigning for judicial office during that time.

The mistrial motion will ultimately be decided by Engoron, who has already blasted Trump and his lawyers for complaining about his law clerk, at one point saying it smacked of possible misogyny. It’s likely the vview by an appeals court. The judge gave state lawyers until tomorrow to file their response to the motion.

Attorney general

James, in a statement, called the mistrial motion another effort by Trump to distract from the strength of the case.

“Once again, Donald Trump is trying to dismiss the truth and the facts, but the numbers and evidence don’t lie,” the attorney general said. “Donald Trump is now being held accountable for the years of fraud he committed and the incredible ways he lied to enrich himself and his family.”

While the state’s lawsuit was filed in September 2022, Trump’s lawyers have been familiar with Engoron and his law clerk since early 2019, when James sued to enforce subpoenas as part of her probe into the former president’s assets. Engoron, with the law clerk sitting by his side, frequently ruled against Trump and his company during that time, and the clerk frequently asked the former president’s lawyers pointed questions from the bench while giving the judge advice on the law.

Trump’s animosity toward the law clerk boiled over one day after the trial began Oct. 2. When Trump’s post on his Truth Social platform was discovered by the court, Engoron held a sealed hearing before issuing the gag order. “Personal attacks on members of my court staff are unacceptable and inappropriate,” the judge said at the time. “I will not allow it under any circumstances.”

Trump deleted the post. But defense lawyers Habba and Christopher Kise began to make intermittent remarks about the clerk in open court as the trial progressed, with Kise making comments each time the clerk passed a note to Engoron and Habba accusing her of rolling her eyes from the bench.

Gag order

Since then, the former president has been fined for inadvertently leaving the deleted post about the clerk up on his website and again when he allegedly made a thinly veiled comment about the clerk to the press outside court, without naming her. More recently, the judge expanded the gag order to cover Trump’s lawyers, barring them from commenting on the clerk’s note-passing, which Engoron forcefully defended.

Engoron said his rulings are necessary to protect his staff amid a flood of threatening and harassing emails and voice mails over the trial.