Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a press conference held at Mar-a-Lago on February 08, 2024 in Palm Beach, Florida. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The New York judge with the power to hand former President Donald Trump a half-billion dollar fine seems to be growing downright peeved with Trump’s legal team. A fresh spat erupted this week between Justice Arthur Engoron and Trump’s lawyers over the question of whether Trump’s longtime finance chief Allen Weisselberg might be negotiating a guilty plea to a criminal perjury charge for lying under oath in the civil fraud trial that wrapped up in Engoron’s courtroom last month.
Both sides traded barbs in a series of recent letters this week. On Thursday, in a tersely-worded letter, Justice Engoron expressed frustration with what he described as a Trump lawyer’s “misleading” response that “grossly mischaracterizes” the Judge’s request for information about Weisselberg. “You and your co-counsel have been questioning my impartiality since the early days of this case, presumably because I sometimes rule against your clients,” Judge Arthur Engoron wrote to Trump lawyer Clifford Robert. “The whole approach is getting old.”Justice Engoron’s sour tone may not bode well for Trump, in light of the judge’s power to determine the fate of the former president’s business empire.This judge is now deciding how harshly Trump and his family business should be punished after they were found liable in the New York Attorney General Letitia James’ sweeping fraud lawsuit. James is seeking a $370 million fine, plus a lifetime ban on Trump working in real estate or running a company in New York State. A decision could theoretically land at any moment. But Justice Engoron told lawyers on both sides earlier this week that he wants to know if a witness misrepresented important facts.“I of course want to know whether Mr. Weisselberg is now changing his tune, and whether he is admitting he lied under oath in my courtroom at this trial,” Justice Engoron wrote in a letter released on Tuesday.
A recent New York Times article reported that Weisselberg is negotiating a deal with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to plead guilty to a perjury charge, which would include an admission that he made false statements in Trump’s civil trial. The Times reported that Weisselberg is not expected to cooperate against Trump, who has been charged by the Manhattan DA’s office with falsifying business records relating to hush money payments before the 2016 election to porn star Stormy Daniels, who claims she slept with Trump. Trump’s criminal trial in New York is due to start on March 25, and now appears likely to be the first of Trump’s four criminal cases. Clifford responded by saying the judge’s “request for comment on this speculative media account is unprecedented, inappropriate and troubling.”Clifford wrote that the judge did not have the legal authority to take “judicial notice” of a news story, using a legal term that refers to one way evidence can be introduced into a case. Judge Engoron fired back that he didn’t plan to take judicial notice of the article, and never said he would, but that he still wanted to know what had happened in his courtroom as he decides what Trump’s punishment should be. “If, tomorrow, Mr. Weisselberg publicly confesses to having committed perjury about a significant matter in the case before me, or if he pleads guilty to such perjury at any time before I issue my final decision, I will research and consider what the law allows,” Judge Engoron wrote. “I take seriously my obligation to find the facts and determine the truth.” Weisselberg previously pleaded admitted he broke the law by orchestrating a scheme to award himself and other top executives in Trump’s family business in off-the-books benefits, and spent about 100 days in New York’s Rikers Island prison facility. His lawyer, Seth Rosen, didn’t respond to a request for comment.