Trump blames Cohen for breaking gag order as judge fires back at jury comments

Judge Juan Merchan grew frustrated with Trump’s attorneys’ defence of allegations that he breached a trial gag order four more times

Alex Woodward
in Manhattan criminal court
Thursday 02 May 2024 15:52 BST
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The judge presiding over Donald Trump’s hush money trial fired back at his attorney’s attempts to dodge punishment for his comments about the jury – remarks that appear likely to violate a gag order that blocks him from public attacks on witnesses and jurors.

In a contempt hearing on Thursday morning, the former president’s legal team tried to blame at least some of Mr Trump’s potential violations on Michael Cohen, arguing his former attorney and the potential star witness in the case has made “multiple and repeated attacks” on his “credibility” and campaign.

Pulling up several social media posts from Cohen, Mr Trump’s attorney argued that he is “inviting and almost daring Trump to respond to everything he’s saying”.

Throughout the hearing, New York Justice Juan Merchan appeared unconvinced by the defence’s arguments and grew increasingly frustrated with Mr Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche.

At one point, when Mr Blanche claimed that the trial is “political persecution” and a “political trial” in a “jurisdiction” that is politically biased against the former president, Judge Merchan cut him off.

“Did he violate the gag order? That’s what I want to know,” he said. “He spoke about the jury, right? And he said the jury was 95 per cent Democrats and the jury had been rushed through, and the implication that this was not a fair jury?”

Earlier this month, while awaiting the judge’s decision on whether to impose sanctions on previous gag order breaches, Manhattan prosecutors accused Mr Trump of violating the order four more times within just three days of the trial’s first week – including statements that were made right outside the court’s doors and a statement that took aim at the jury that is now seated across from him.

Donald Trump speaks to reporters in a Manhattan criminal courthouse on 2 May.
Donald Trump speaks to reporters in a Manhattan criminal courthouse on 2 May. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

On Tuesday, he was fined $9,000 for nine other violations and threatened with jail time if he continues to break the gag order.

Prosecutors are now asking the judge to fine him $1,000 for each of the four new alleged violations.

One of those alleged violations took place on 22 April during a nearly nine-minute rant in the court hallway, when Mr Trump said his former lawyer and trial witness Cohen “wasn’t very good in a lot of ways in terms of representation” and that Cohen “got caught lying, pure lying” during Mr Trump’s civil fraud trial down the street.

Judge Merchan noted on Thursday that, when Mr Trump walks over to reporters at the courthouse to deliver several minutes-long press conferences, “it wasn’t the press who went to him. He went to the press”.

“You’re telling me the scrutiny is outrageous. Nobody is telling your client where to stand that day,” Judge Merchan told Mr Trump’s legal team.

“Judge,” said Mr Blanche, briefly pausing. “I agree with that.”

Mr Trump also went off on Cohen during an 11-minute interview with a Pennsylvania TV station that aired on 23 April.

“Michael Cohen is a convicted liar and he’s got no credibility whatsoever,” he said.

Assistant District Attorney Christopher Conroy brought up that moment in court on Thursday, telling the judge: “This is the most critical time, the time the proceeding has to be protected.”

Mr Blanche responded by claiming that Mr Trump “can’t just say ‘no comment’ repeatedly”.

Claiming Cohen is “almost daring” his former client to fire back at his comments, Mr Blanche showed the judge several of Cohen’s social media posts.

In one post, Cohen told Mr Trump: “Keep messing with me Donald and I won’t send any money to your commissary.”

Former US president Donald Trump watches as lawyer Keith Davidson takes the stand
Former US president Donald Trump watches as lawyer Keith Davidson takes the stand (REUTERS)

Another post showed an image of Mr Trump in an orange superhero suit with the caption “Super Victim.”

Mr Blanche also quoted a post from Cohen calling Mr Trump “Von Sh**zInPantz,” an interview with Politico in which he called Mr Trump a liar, and Cohen’s “nightly” TikTok videos discussing the case and Mr Trump’s campaign.

“This is not a man that needs protection from a gag order,” Mr Blanche said of Cohen.

Mr Blanche also tried to claim that the gag order means Mr Trump can’t respond to attacks from President Joe Biden as they go head-to-head in the race for the White House. He pointed to Mr Biden’s comments on stage at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

“Donald has had a few tough days lately, you might call it stormy weather,” the president said.

Judge Merchan brushed off the defence’s argument, saying that there is “nothing in the gag order that says he can’t” respond to Mr Biden.

One of the other alleged violations raised by prosecutors involved Mr Trump’s interview with far-right network Real American’s Voice.

During that interview, Mr Trump said the jury “was picked so fast – 95 per cent Democrats”.

“The area’s mostly all Democrat. You think of it as a – just a purely Democrat area. It’s a very unfair situation that I can tell you,” he said.

He made those comments after the jury was selected – and after the judge admonished Mr Trump in court for “audibly” commenting about a juror and “gesticulating” towards her.

Donald Trump sits in a criminal courtroom in Manhattan on 2 May
Donald Trump sits in a criminal courtroom in Manhattan on 2 May (via REUTERS)

“I won’t tolerate it. I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom,” the judge said on 16 April. “I want to make that crystal clear.”

The fourth alleged violation came on 23 April when, just hours before former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker resumed his trial testimony, Mr Trump said that “David has been“very nice” and a “nice guy”.

“The defendant knows what he’s doing. The defendant talks about the testifying witness, says nice things and does it in front of the camera,” Mr Conroy told the judge on Thursday.

It’s “deliberate and calculated,” he added. “Pecker, be nice. Anyone else hearing this, I have a platform. … [The statements are] deliberate shots across the bow to anyone who will come into this courtroom to talk about the defendant and talk about what he did.”

At his rallies in Wisconsin and Michigan on Wednesday, Mr Trump appeared to avoid violating the gag order but took shots at the judge, who, along with prosecutors, is fair game. The gag blocks him from speaking out about witnesses, jurors, court staff and their families.

In Wisconsin, he called Judge Merchan “crooked” and “conflicted”.

“I’ve got to do two of these things a day. You know why? Because I’m in New York all the time with the Biden trial,” Mr Trump said in Michigan, repeating a baseless conspiracy that Mr Biden is directing his criminal cases.

“It’s a fake trial. They do it to try and take your powers away, try and take your candidate away.”

So far, the former president has been fined $24,000 for violating trial gag orders in his criminal case and in his civil fraud trial, where Justice Arthur Engoron imposed $15,000 in penalties for Mr Trump’s statements about his court staff. Mr Trump’s attorney Alina Habba cut a check to the court on her client’s behalf.

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