Trump Gag Order in Fraud Case Put on Hold by Appeals Court

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(Bloomberg) -- A New York appeals court said the gag orders imposed on Donald Trump by the judge in the state’s civil fraud trial against him are unconstitutional, and the restrictions were put on hold pending further arguments.

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The temporary stay of the gag orders, for which Trump has been fined $15,000 for violating twice, was granted Thursday by Manhattan appellate judge Daniel Friedman. He said they were “unconstitutional, and the sanctions imposed thereunder are in violation of the Judiciary Law and Rules of the Court.”

The decision in the midst of a trial that began more than six weeks ago is a major win for Trump, who has publicly lambasted the judge overseeing the case and accused him of rampant bias.

Judge Arthur Engoron, who is presiding in the fraud case, limited what Trump and his lawyers could say publicly after their “repeated inappropriate remarks” about his law clerk. Engoron said he wanted to protect court workers, citing a flood of threatening and harassing calls and emails to his chambers during the trial.

But at the appeal hearing Thursday, Trump lawyer Chris Kise argued Engoron’s gag order “presumes any criticism of his staff will incite violence,” arguing those claims are unsubstantiated. “They have no evidence other than the hobgoblins from the court.” Trump, who’s running for reelection, has a right to address “bias” he sees from the court and his law clerk, Kise said.

‘Protecting Everyone’

“Fortunately, the constitution has a role in protecting everyone, including President Trump,” Kise told reporters after the hearing.

The gag-order fight is the latest in the sometimes chaotic trial of a lawsuit 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 for more than a decade to get better terms from banks and insurers. Trump filed a motion for a mistrial Wednesday, repeating his claim of political bias by the judge.

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.”

Lisa Evans, a lawyer for Engoron and the state judiciary, told the appeals court that Trump’s statements and comments were “dog whistles” encouraging his followers to make threats against the judge and his staff. The law clerk has received “hundreds and hundreds” of anti-Semitic threats, Evans said.

She argued the gag order he issued was proper, and cited Trump’s posts on social media that he’d like to see James and Engoron “placed under house arrest.”

“What this does is fuel further threats,” Evans told the appeals court. “That is not political speech. That is threatening behavior and it should stop.”

Daniel Magy, a lawyer for James, said Trump wasn’t barred from commenting about the judge or even the attorney general. Engoron was merely trying to tamp down the rhetoric, especially from Trump, Magy said.

“He’s called Judge Engoron ‘deranged,’” Magy told Friedman. “The idea that Mr. Trump is prevented from expressing his views is not true.” He also disputed Trump’s claim that the gag order was intended to shield the judge from bias claims. “They’ve raised this repeatedly and it is a vexatious argument,” Magy said.

Read More: Trump Seeks Mistrial in NY Fraud Case, Alleges Bias by Judge

--With assistance from Erik Larson.

(Updates with comments in appellate court ruling, arguments at hearing.)

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