Days before Donald Trump’s attorneys mount their month-long case to defend the former president from fraud allegations that threaten his business empire, one of his chief allies in Congress filed an ethics complaint against the judge presiding over the trial.
Republican US Rep Elise Stefanik, a top-ranking member of the House GOP, filed a complaint on 10 November that invokes similar rhetoric from Mr Trump’s attorneys in their defence of the former president in and out of the lower Manhattan courtroom.
Judge Arthur Engoron has faced widespread scrutiny among Republican officials and Mr Trump’s supporters for a summary judgment that found him and his co-defendants liable for fraud, as laid out in hundreds of pages of evidence and in depositions stemming from the case from New York Attorney General Letitia James, who sued Mr Trump, his adult sons and chief associates last year.
Judge Engoron also has faced criticism for issuing a gag order that prevents parties in the case from disparaging court staff. Mr Trump has violated the order twice, and his attorneys’ statements in the courtroom prompted him to widen the order to include them, too.
Ms Stefanik accused the judge of “inappropriate bias and judicial intemperance” while overseeing a “disgraceful lawsuit” against the Trump family’s business.
A spokesperson for the New York courts systems said in a statement that the judge’s “actions and rulings in this matter are all part of the public record and speak for themselves.”
Her letter – which echoes much of the right-wing criticism against the judge, and relies on several out-of-context quotes that have also been used similarly by Mr Trump’s presidential campaign – comes at the end of the trial’s sixth week, days before Mr Trump’s attorneys begin to present their case, with arguments and witness testimony that is expected to last another month.
Over the last six weeks, the attorney general’s office introduced more than a dozen witnesses, including Mr Trump, his three oldest children, Michael Cohen, and other former Trump Organization executives.
The attorney general’s case argues that Mr Trump and his co-defendants fraudulently inflated his net worth and assets on documents shared with financial institutions in an effort to get more favourable financing terms.
Judge Engoron’s pretrial ruling agreed with the central premise of her case, teeing up a trial to determine what damages Mr Trump and others must pay, and what penalties his businesses will face.
Throughout, Mr Trump has raged at the case, Ms James and the judge, with inflammatory statements on his Truth Social page and in the hallway steps away from the courtroom. His allies have also attacked the judge’s chief clerk, including in a false post shared by Mr Trump that prompted a gag order in the first place.
The judge has repeatedly stated he is fiercely protective of his staff, particularly in light of “the threat of and actual violence resulting from heated political rhetoric,” he wrote in a filing last week.
“Since the commencement of this bench trial, my chambers have been inundated with hundreds of harassing and threatening phone calls, voicemails, emails, letters, and packages,” he wrote. “The First Amendment right of defendants and their attorneys to comment on my staff is far and away outweighed by the need to protect them from threats and physical harm.”
He has stressed, however, that comments against him are fair game. While Mr Trump was lambasting the judge while testifying on 6 November, Judge Engoron told him: “You can attack me, you can do whatever you want, just answer the question.”
Mr Trump’s attorneys, however, have criticised what they perceive is a double standard when it comes to their questions in the courtroom and those from the attorney general’s counsel.
“I object now, and I continue to object, to your constant insinuations that I have some sort of double standard here. That is just not true,” Judge Engoron said on 8 November during Ivanka Trump’s testimony. “I just make the rulings as I see them.”
Mr Trump’s attorneys are expected to bring Donald Trump Jr back to the witness stand as their first witness on 13 November. After the attorney general’s office rested its case, Mr Trump’s attorneys filed a motion for a verdict in their favour.
Judge Engoron has scheduled the trial to last though the weekend before Christmas.