Judge Arthur Engeron Will Wear Trump Down in Court

As a rule, judges don’t like to be the center of the story. New York State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron has found that he doesn’t have much of a choice. This is thanks mostly to one particularly belligerent defendant, but the Bob Dylan–quoting, former Creedence Clearwater Revival–covering drummer and ex-cabbie’s unwillingness to be Donald Trump’s punching bag doesn’t hurt, either.

The 74-year-old Engoron, who presides downtown and lives on Long Island, has for three years now been engaged in a low-boil back-and-forth with the former president that’s only recently turned into full-on tabloid bait. His displeasure with Trump’s soliloquies has become obvious: “Please, no speeches,” he warned the ex-president in early November, before turning to one of his lawyers and informing him, “This is not a political rally.” But it’s Trump who cranked up the temperature — calling the judge “extremely hostile” and a “political hack” who “RAILROADED this FAKE CASE through a [state] Court at a speed never before seen” earlier this fall. Before long, Engoron had slapped a gag order on the former president, and he expanded it to his lawyers after they increased their public criticisms of Engoron to include his clerk, whom the ex-POTUS called Chuck “Schumer’s girlfriend” and later accused of “co-judging.”

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By the middle of November, Trump had demanded a mistrial, which Engoron quickly rejected, defending the gag order as necessary given the volume of threats to his staff. When it was lifted on appeal, Trump wasted no time sharing his true thoughts once again: “His Ridiculous and Unconstitutional Gag Order, not allowing me to defend myself against him and his politically biased and out of control, Trump Hating Clerk, who is sinking him and his Court to new levels of LOW, is a disgrace.” Trump’s contempt-of-court fine total is now up to $125,000; the judge’s commute is now under the protection of security, as credible threats mount “exponentially,” in the words of one Public Safety Department official. Engoron punctuated a September footnote rubbishing a Trump team argument with “As Chico Marx, playing Chicolini, says to Margaret Dumont, playing Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, in ‘Duck Soup,’ ‘well, who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?’”

Trump is by far the highest-profile defendant to have come before Engoron just two years before the judge reaches mandatory-retirement age. He was born less than four miles from Trump in Queens and has a résumé that doesn’t look like most judges’. Thrice married, he drove a taxi nights as an undergraduate student at Columbia. A Vietnam protester and Woodstock attendee, he struck out as a drummer in Berkeley before attending NYU Law, then tried again to make it as a musician before returning to the city’s courts for good in his 40s. To maintain an image of impartiality, he won’t do interviews or talk outside court while the trial drags on. But he moonlights as the editor of his high school’s alumni newsletter (go Wildcats!), which offers some glimpses of his life off the bench: Engoron is apparently not above sharing gym selfies in it, and he’s mentioned working on a screenplay — a Holocaust-era love story.

But this case is his legacy-maker. Engoron seems especially aware of this, as his every move is dissected not just by Trump’s supporters but also by his anxious liberal critics, worried that any clever jab will become more campaign-ad fodder. The case isn’t just bleeding into election season; it may be existential for the Trump brand. In the wake of Attorney General Letitia James’s investigations into the ex-president’s business fraud, he, his sons, and their executives could lose control of their real-estate empire, including their eponymous tower, and face a quarter of a billion dollars in fines. Trump’s wallet is on the line; so may be his self-conception as a swaggering real-estate mogul–slash–billionaire with a golden tower that’s taller than yours. That, and the possibility even some of his fans might finally wise up to his con if the fraud ruling is dramatic enough, are two big reasons Trump’s allies have been ramping up their complaints about Engoron, trying to destroy his credibility with daily attacks on the Democratic judge, accusing him of not just the crime of having a personality but of being hopelessly biased. In the past, Engoron has been pretty clear when he’s run out of patience; in one 2018 ruling, he wrote that the state’s process for reviewing new housing “seems like Rube Goldberg, Franz Kafka, and Marquis de Sade cooked it up over martinis.” These days, that energy doesn’t feel far off.

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