Meet Allison Greenfield, the law clerk driving Trump bonkers at his fraud trial

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  • Donald Trump and his lawyers have been throwing a fit about Justice Arthur Engoron's clerk.

  • The clerk, Allison Greenfield, an experienced lawyer, once ran to become a judge herself.

  • Trump's attacks — now banned under a gag order — led to antisemitic harassment and threats.

There's a famous joke among lawyers: A good lawyer knows the law. A great lawyer knows the judge.

But what about the law clerk?

These pillars of the court tend to fade into the background. Attorneys usually focus on mustering arguments that will persuade judges, who can make or break a case, to side with their clients.

In Donald Trump's civil fraud trial, however, his attorneys have spent a disproportionate amount of time — and ire — on Allison Greenfield, the judge's principal law clerk.

Trump's attacks on Greenfield have prompted a deluge of antisemitic harassment and hundreds of slur-filled threats and disparaging messages directed toward her, as well as threats against the judge and his family. A transcript of the threats and harassing messages totaled 275 single-spaced pages, an affidavit filed to the court said.

Greenfield, 37, has sat at the side of New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron, the trial judge overseeing the case, since before the beginning.

Before New York's attorney general, Letitia James, filed her enormous fraud lawsuit against Trump — along with his family company, his children who worked for the Trump Organization, and two other executives — Engoron oversaw a protracted legal battle over the subpoenas in the case.

James had filed subpoena after subpoena forcing the Trumps to sit for depositions and hand over corporate documents as her office investigated what it believed was a sprawling fraud operation where the company fudged its numbers to get favorable rates on loans, taxes, and insurance. Those claims made their way into her office's 222-page civil lawsuit. The trial began in early October and is expected to last through mid-December.

The former president's lawyers, led by Alina Habba, fought each subpoena tooth and nail, even as the appellate court allowed them.

In one hearing over a set of subpoenas in February 2022, Habba gave long soliloquies arguing that the case was politically motivated and questioned why James didn't investigate Hillary Clinton instead.

Greenfield cut in, acting as Engoron's enforcer.

"When the judge speaks, you have to stop speaking," Greenfield told Habba.

It's clear that Trump's lawyers see Greenfield, and not just Engoron, as an obstacle to winning the case. And now they're trying to take Greenfield down.

Notes and whispers

During the trial, Greenfield is quiet.

She enters the courtroom in lower Manhattan each day from an entrance used by the judge, separate from the large, imposing doors the public and parties enter through. As the attorneys settle their paperwork on the wide wooden desks covered in computer monitors and black wires snaking to the floor, she might exchange a brief smile and a few words of small talk.

But once Engoron walks in — "Come to order!" a bailiff shouts — she remains stone-faced and silent, seated 3 feet to his right on the bench.

While Trump's four criminal cases could land him in prison, James' case against him is perhaps his biggest legal problem. It may cost him the Trump Organization itself.

Engoron has already issued a summary judgment concluding the Trump Organization is liable for fraud and giving it the so-called corporate death penalty by ruling that it should be dissolved (an appellate court has put that decision on hold). At trial, Trump's team — made up of Habba; Christopher Kise, Florida's former solicitor general; Clifford Roberts, the family members' lawyer; and Jesus M. Suarez, a self-described anti-"woke" lawyer — seeks to stop more damage and is planning to appeal any adverse decisions. James wants to disgorge the Trump Organization of more than $250 million in what she describes as ill-gotten gains and prohibit the Trumps from running any business in New York state ever again.

donald trump alina habba chris kise fraud trial
Trump is flanked by his defense attorneys Alina Habba and Chris Kise at his civil fraud trial in New York.AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Greenfield rarely says a word aloud during the trial days, except to ask the attorneys about scheduling issues.

But during witness testimony and arguments from the lawyers, Greenfield often whispers to Engoron, who huddles with her and appears to listen intently. She passes notes, sometimes appearing to prompt a question or idea that Engoron will raise with the lawyers before him.

It's these notes and whispers that have enraged Trump and his lawyers. They say Greenfield is an unchecked and "openly partisan" Democrat who acts as a "co-judge" in the case. They say Engoron and Greenfield are not merely judging the facts and the law but are playing a political game meant to destroy the leader of the Republican Party.

"She constantly passes him notes, whispers in his ear, and publicly consults with him on nearly every ruling," Trump's lawyers wrote in a recent filing. "Counsel has noted that this can happen between thirty to forty times a day. This extended consultation occurs primarily when Petitioners' counsel, rather than the Attorney General, interposes an objection."

Trump, as usual, has been much less discreet.

"Schumer's girlfriend, Alison R. Greenfield, is running this case against me," he posted on Truth Social along with a photo of Greenfield and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer. (A representative for Schumer said the photo was taken "at an annual brunch," one of "tens of thousands" of pictures with constituents in New York.)

Greenfield declined to comment for this story.

In Engoron's view, the way a clerk and judge may communicate is no one else's business.

He has declared during the trial that he has "an absolutely unfettered, unrestricted right" to get legal advice from his clerk and "may consult my law clerks any place, any time, about any matter."

The lawyers must deal with his rulings, not with how they're made.

Letitia James Trump civil trial court
Letitia James, New York's attorney general, stepping out of the courtroom doing a short break in the civil fraud trial against Trump.AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Because of the enormous public interest in the Trump trial, it's held in the New York civil court's large ceremonial courtroom. It's set up differently from Engoron's usual room, placing Greenfield next to Engoron on the bench instead of at her own desk farther away. The odd arrangement has been further inspiration for Trump's and his lawyers' ire.

While there's nothing inherently wrong with that setup, "the optics of it look terrible," said Ruth B. Kraft, a former New York state judge.

Trump and his legal team have seized on the unusual arrangement and taken advantage of the relatively obscure nature of a law clerk's role to change the narrative. Their rhetoric focuses not on the potential penalties for the Trump Organization but on whether the whole trial has been a partisan operation rigged from the start, said Kraft, now an attorney at Falcon Rappaport & Berkman.

"I have no doubt that Justice Engoron is firmly at the helm of the case and that any decision made in the case will be Justice Engoron's," Kraft, who hasn't personally practiced before the judge, told Business Insider.

Early in the trial, Engoron issued a gag order forbidding Trump — and later his attorneys — from disparaging his staff, including Greenfield, citing numerous threats. Engoron found that Trump violated the order when, while ranting to journalists, he blasted the "person who's very partisan sitting alongside of him." Engoron fined Trump $10,000.

Donald Trump reading aloud from a piece of paper, with Alina Habba looking at him in the background.
Trump addressing reporters on the opening day of his New York civil fraud trial.Seth Wenig/AP

An affidavit submitted by a New York state court security officer in late November said Greenfield told him she'd received 20 to 30 calls to her personal cellphone and up to 50 messages to her social-media accounts daily since Trump's initial attacks in early October.

The affidavit indicated security officers concluded that many of the threats, which typically included antisemitic sentiment, were "serious and credible and not hypothetical or speculative."

"The implementation of the limited gag orders resulted in a decrease in the number of threats, harassment, and disparaging messages that the judge and his staff received," the court security officer wrote in the affidavit. "However, when Mr. Trump violated the gag orders, the number of threatening, harassing and disparaging messages increased."

When an appellate judge put the gag order on hold, Habba was thrilled.

"She's in the judge's ear time and time again. You see it every single day," she told journalists. "If she had a real threat, she should get off the bench and stop having her photograph taken. But she hasn't done that. It's completely absurd."

Trump, too, almost immediately went back to attacking Greenfield on Truth Social and in statements. He also attacked Engoron's wife, highlighting posts on X critical of him from an account he claimed belonged to her. (Engoron's wife has said that the account doesn't belong to her and that she doesn't use the social-media platform.)

On Thursday, the appellate court reinstated the gag order, once again forbidding Trump and his lawyers from attacking Greenfield.

Moments later, in court, Engoron gave Greenfield a nod. With a smile, he said he wanted to set deadlines for posttrial filings and told the lawyers to talk to "the person sitting at my side."

Greenfield is an experienced attorney who ran to become a judge herself

When people think about judicial clerks, they usually picture Supreme Court clerks, typically recent law-school graduates who help the justices write their opinions and keep the chambers running smoothly. In some states and in much of the federal court system, it works the same way. Engoron has a second clerk, a recent law-school graduate who fulfills that role.

In the New York state court system, however, clerks — especially principal law clerks like Greenfield — can do much more. New York state judges tend to be overworked and have immense backlogs; lawyers often complain that cases run much faster in New York's federal courts or in other jurisdictions.

Depending on how the judge handles their chambers, they might delegate a clerk to set deadlines and give them a free hand to draft rulings in the early stages of a case.

That gives some principal law clerks "tremendous, tremendous power in the pretrial levels," said Kraft, the former New York state judge.

The dynamic might be pronounced with Greenfield, an experienced attorney in her own right.

"She is the most senior member of his chambers, an accomplished attorney, an aspirant herself to the bench with years of experience who, under his direction and control, participates in the pretrial of the case and participates at his direction in preparing responses to be able to rule on various issues," Kraft said.

allison greenfield arthur engoron
Justice Arthur Engoron and Greenfield on the bench in the ceremonial courtroom.Jeenah Moon-Pool/Getty Images

Greenfield attended Cardozo School of Law from 2007 to 2010 after graduating from New York University.

She spent the summer of 2008 as an intern for US District Judge George B. Daniels, a federal judge in Manhattan, according to her LinkedIn profile. Years later, Daniels, an appointee of former President Bill Clinton, dismissed a pair of lawsuits brought against Trump alleging he violated the US Constitution's emoluments clause, ruling that the issue should be left to Congress.

Greenfield then spent less than three years in the private sector at Jaffe & Asher, a national law firm with practice areas in debt collection, real estate, and corporate litigation. Gregory Galterio, the firm's managing partner in New York, confirmed that Greenfield had worked there but declined to comment further, citing the firm's policy not to comment on former employees. Online court records show only one case she worked on, where she represented a financial institution against an individual who didn't pay their credit-card bills. The case was settled after four months.

After Jaffe & Asher, Greenfield entered the public sector, working for the special litigation unit in New York City's law department from 2013 to 2018. SLU (pronounced "slew") has a reputation as an elite group within the department, taking on high-profile and complex lawsuits filed against the city, including particularly sensitive cases against the New York Police Department. It's not clear which cases Greenfield worked on while at SLU. A New York Law Department representative said a list of her cases was "not readily available." Greenfield also returned to Cardozo in 2015, for a year, to teach as an adjunct professor.

In 2019 she began clerking for Engoron. Aside from the Trump case, Engoron in that time has handled numerous high-profile cases, including lawsuits over a pay hike for Uber drivers and shelter for homeless people during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, a dispute over a subpoena Johnny Depp issued to the American Civil Liberties Union for his lawsuit against Amber Heard, and a dramatic contempt hearing for a former lawyer for Anna Sorokin (aka Anna Delvey) who had withheld documents from her.

"I like her," Sorokin, who served nearly four years after being found guilty of larceny in a trial overseen by a different judge, told Business Insider. "Seemed to me like she didn't tolerate any nonsense. She was very straight to the point and didn't waste time to be overly polite."

Donald Trump, Jr., outside the Trump civil fraud trial in New York.
Donald Trump Jr. outside the Trump civil fraud trial in New York.Brendan McDermid/Getty Images

Engoron, Kraft said, "is very lucky to have somebody who's this experienced."

While Engoron is no legal lightweight himself — he's been a judge for 20 years — Greenfield can be helpful by asking the lawyers smart questions during hearings to tease out their precise arguments and inform the judge's decisions, Kraft said.

"The reason you're seeing her take more of an intense role is because she is a very, very well-trained trial lawyer," Kraft told Business Insider.

In 2022, Greenfield ran to become a judge herself.

In New York, trial judges are essentially handpicked by local party leaders. And in Manhattan, that means Democratic Party groups make the decisions.

As part of her race, Greenfield courted Democratic Party chapters in the city for their support, hobnobbing with local political leaders and talking about her judicial philosophy. Records show she donated to groups including West Side Democrats, Grand Street Democrats, Hell's Kitchen Democrats, and Village Independent Democrats, among other candidates.

Greenfield didn't get the nomination. But in Trump's lawyers' view, that history is untenable. At a candidate forum Greenfield said she'd weigh whether judicial precedents would support "what would the people who elected me want me to do," which Trump's lawyers argued in a mistrial motion was an admission that she's driven by partisan motives.

In court, Kise has frequently argued that, in appealing the case, the lawyers need to have a record of Engoron's arguments supporting his rulings. By whispering in Engoron's ear, Kise has argued, Greenfield is effectively a "co-judge" making rulings with no record.

After the gag order was briefly suspended, Habba said Greenfield had no one to blame but herself.

"She has a choice not to sit up on the bench," she said. "She has a choice. She had a choice not to put out things. Anything you do in life, it's called accountability."

Kraft said the notion that Trump's appeal would hinge on Greenfield's conversations with Engoron is absurd.

"Just seeing the prior rulings that he's made, those decisions have been beautifully written," the former judge said. "And so to say to the appellate division, 'Reverse this decision because he has his principal law secretary sitting up there' — as opposed to sitting down by the stenographer or sitting in the front row and him taking bathroom breaks to confer with her — is preposterous."

Laura Italiano contributed reporting.

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