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Trump fined after judge calls him to the witness stand

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It has been another unprecedented week as far as former President Donald Trump's legal sagas go. And again, we hear that a lot, but it really seems to be the best way to describe a former president being ordered to take the stand in a trial. That was the surprise twist in Trump's New York civil fraud trial on Wednesday. It was one of many dramatic turns in the cases against Donald Trump, who is currently facing four criminal cases in addition to that New York civil case. And by the way, he's running for president again.

In this week's installment of Trump on trial, we are going to talk about all of this, plus the latest in the Georgia and federal election fraud cases he's also facing. I'm joined now by NPR political reporter Ximena Bustillo, as well as Renato Mariotti, a defense attorney and a former federal prosecutor. Hey, to both of you.

RENATO MARIOTTI: Hey.

XIMENA BUSTILLO, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So last week, Trump violated a gag order and was fined $5,000 for accusing the judge's law clerk of being a partisan Democrat. And then this week, the judge ruled that Trump violated the gag order again after speaking to the press. And he said a little vaguely that the judge was partisan, along with, quote, "the person sitting alongside of him." Ximena, tell us what happened.

BUSTILLO: So when the judge heard that this comment had been made, he flagged it, and he was like, I heard that this was said. The Associated Press had written it in a story. He's like, if that was true, this is likely to be a violation of the gag order. Judge Engoron asks Trump to come to the stand to answer questions about who he was talking about, and Trump - as well as, earlier, his lawyers - made the case that he was talking about Michael Cohen, not about the clerk. But at the end of the day, the judge decided that he didn't think what Trump said on the stand under oath was credible - ultimately gave him a $10,000 fine.

DETROW: Let's shift gears a little bit. Sticking with the civil case, though, let's talk about Michael Cohen's testimony. We previewed this a little bit last week. A quick refresher - for years, Cohen was Trump's lawyer and fixer. He's the person who handled the payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels for Trump during the 2016 presidential race and just weeks before actual Election Day, part of the reason why Cohen went to jail himself for more than a year. And that payment is at the heart of another criminal case against Trump. Renato, what stood out to you from Cohen's testimony this week?

MARIOTTI: Well, look, it is always a striking thing when a lawyer for someone says that he helped that person commit crimes, and that is a big deal. And as a practical matter, while this is not a criminal trial, essentially, you know, fraud is obviously a criminal offense. It's a very serious offense. And for Michael Cohen to be coming out and saying that is shocking. That said, I do think, despite the fact that Trump doesn't have a very strong legal team here, I do think that the cross-examination of him certainly struck some blows. It could have been better, but the bottom line is that Michael Cohen is not, you know, the most credible witness on earth, either.

DETROW: Ximena, what jumped out to you from being there in the courtroom as these two people who have been attacking each other for years sat in the same courtroom just a few feet away from each other?

BUSTILLO: You know, earlier this week, Cohen did testify that he had to like, quote, reverse-engineer financial statements to depict these big, inflated numbers and values that Trump wanted. And when asked by the Trump team if Trump had asked him to do it, he said no. And so the Trump lawyers tried to motion a direct verdict, claiming that Cohen, basically admitting that he was never explicitly asked to do this, was a case closed. But the judge denied that motion, not once, but twice. And that caused Trump to storm out in the middle of proceedings. And Cohen later clarified that he was never explicitly asked to do it, but he described Trump as a mob boss, saying that, you know, he tells you what he wants you to do without specifically telling you.

DETROW: All right. Let's shift gears to Georgia because this week, another former Trump lawyer took a plea deal in the Georgia election fraud case.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNA ELLIS: If I knew then what I know now, I would have declined to represent Donald Trump in these post-election challenges. I look back on this whole experience with deep remorse.

DETROW: That was Jenna Ellis pleading guilty to aiding and abetting false statements and writings. Her plea deal, just like Sidney Powell's and Kenneth Chesebro's last week, among other things, includes testifying at future trials. This is now the fourth co-defendant and third attorney to accept a plea deal. How big of a deal is this in the big picture?

MARIOTTI: I think it's significant because, first of all, you know, this, in many ways, is the end of a gambit that Kenneth Chesebro launched where he demanded a speedy trial. And Sidney Powell jumped on that bandwagon, and they were going to have an early trial, essentially forcing the DA to have two trials in the same case and preview her evidence before Trump - a, you know, trial, you know, actually went underway. That came to an end with guilty pleas. And I have to think that, while certainly the punishment was not significant, and so in that regard, it was a good deal for the defendants, this was also a win for Fani Willis.

DETROW: Yeah, that's Fani Willis, the district attorney who's prosecuting this case in Georgia. Renato, one last thing to ask about. We are going to shift one more time to yet another trial. This is the federal January 6 case against Trump. ABC News reported this week that former Chief of Staff Mark Meadows took a limited immunity deal to testify to the grand jury. One of the things he reportedly said was that Trump was, quote, "dishonest to the public on election night," which is when, of course, he began claiming he won an election that he lost. I mean, how important is that particular omission to you in the big picture?

MARIOTTI: I do think it is important because Trump's main defense in the January 6 case in federal court is going to be that he honestly believed that the election was stolen. And so he was actually doing all of this because he was carrying forward his honest beliefs, and what he did was not a fraud against the United States government at all. However, you know, his statements to his own White House chief of staff, at that point in time, really undercuts that. So I think that's valuable. And I think, you know, Mark Meadows here is walking a very fine line. Essentially, what he got here was what's called use immunity. He got - he's not a flipper. He's not a cooperator against Trump, but he got some limited immunity, and he's not charged. But at the same time, he doesn't look like a turncoat against Trump.

DETROW: That's NPR political reporter Ximena Bustillo, who's covering the New York civil trial for NPR, as well as Renato Mariotti, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. Thanks so much to both of you.

BUSTILLO: Thanks, Scott.

MARIOTTI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.
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