Judge threatens Trump with jail if he keeps violating gag order as ex-president hit with $9k fine

The former president was also ordered to delete Truth Social posts attacking witnesses – or face jail time

Alex Woodward
in New York County Supreme Court, Criminal Term
Tuesday 30 April 2024 18:51 BST
Related video: Trump speaks to the media on his way into court on 30 April
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The judge presiding over Donald Trump’s hush money trial has threatened him with jailtime if he continues to violate a gag order in the case, after hitting him with a $9,000 fine for nine separate violations.

Moments before a second week of witness testimony began on Tuesday morning, New York justice Juan Merchan issued a brief order from the bench finding the former president in contempt of court and ordering $1,000 fines for nine offending Truth Social posts where he attacked witnesses in the case.

In his written order, the judge warned that Mr Trump could face an “incarceratory punishment” if he continues his “wilful violations” of the court’s order, if “necessary and appropriate under the circumstances”.

He also suggested that Mr Trump could face more severe sanctions, if the financial penalties aren’t enough to stop the billionaire defendant.

“While $1,000 may suffice in most instances to protect the dignity of the judicial system to compel respect for its mandates and to punish the offender for disobeying a court order, it unfortunately will not achieve the desired result in those instances where the contemnor can easily afford such a fine,” Judge Merchan wrote.

“In those circumstances, it would be preferable if the court could impose a fine more commensurate with the wealth of the contemnor,” he added.

“In some cases that might be a $2,500 fine, in other cases it might be a fine of $150,000. Because this court is not cloaked with such discretion, it must therefore consider whether in some instances, jail may be a necessary punishment.”

Mr Trump was ordered to delete the Truth Social posts by Tuesday afternoon and pay the fine by Friday.

With roughly 30 minutes remaining before his 2.15pm deadline to remove them, the posts were taken down.

Manhattan prosecutors accused Mr Trump of breaching the trial gag order through at least 10 different posts on his Truth Social platform and on his campaign website, including posts targeting key witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels.

Donald Trump appears in a Manhattan criminal courthouse moments before a second week of witness testimony in his hush money trial gets under way on 30 April
Donald Trump appears in a Manhattan criminal courthouse moments before a second week of witness testimony in his hush money trial gets under way on 30 April (AP)

Mr Trump’s former attorney and “fixer” Cohen and the adult film star Ms Daniels – both central to the scheme at the heart of the case – are both expected to testify about Mr Trump’s alleged plot to falsify business records to hide hush money payments to Ms Daniels ahead of the 2016 election.

The payments were allegedly made to silence Ms Daniels over an alleged affair she had with Mr Trump back in 2006.

Prosecutors allege that the payments were part of a months-long scheme to bury politically compromising stories of his alleged affairs to boost his chances of winning the 2016 presidential election.

Before the trial started – and since it got under way – Mr Trump has lashed out out at people involved in the case including witnesses, court staff, the judge and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Following the attacks, the judge expanded the order.

Last week, the judge held a hearing to hear arguments from both sides after the prosecution alleged Mr Trump had broken the gag order 10 times.

On 23 April, defence attorney Todd Blanche argued that Mr Trump’s posts were responding to “political” attacks but failed to offer up any examples of what, exactly, Mr Trump was responding to.

Judge Merchan appeared wholly unconvinced.

“You presented nothing,” he told Mr Trump’s attorney. “You’re losing all credibility, I’ll tell you that right now.”

Manhattan assistant district attorney Christopher Conroy told the judge that Mr Trump has a habit of saying “whatever he wants to say to get the results he wants”.

In this case, Mr Trump is “knowingly and wilfully breaching the crystal clear, unequivocal lines drawn up by the court,” he said.

Prosecutors asked the judge to hold Mr Trump in contempt, fine him $1,000 for each breach, and order him to remove the offending posts with a warning that he could face jail time.

Donald Trump chats with his son Eric Trump on the fifth day of testimony at his hush money trial
Donald Trump chats with his son Eric Trump on the fifth day of testimony at his hush money trial (Reuters)

Now, prosecutors have alleged four more violations from the first days of witness testimony alone, including statements Mr Trump gave just outside the courtroom’s doors – taking the number of alleged violations to 14 since the initial order was issued last month.

Mr Trump’s ongoing statements that “specifically target individuals and the proceeding which this court’s order protects is a deliberate flouting of this court’s directives [and] that warrants sanctions,” Mr Conroy wrote.

Judge Merchan will hold another hearing on the four new alleged violations on 2 May.

On the trial’s second day, while jury selection was under way, the judge separately warned Mr Trump against intimidating jurors in his courtroom.

A protective order bars Mr Trump from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and others connected to the case. Judge Merchan expanded the order to include public statements about the families of the judge and Mr Bragg’s office.

The trial’s first week of witness testimony concluded on Friday with remarkable testimony tying the former president to an alleged plot to corruptly influence an American election, against a backdrop of menace from the candidate-turned-defendant and his alleged threats to jurors and the witnesses assembled against him.

Mr Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records as part of an alleged scheme to buy the silence of adult film star Stormy Daniels, whose story of her alleged affair with Mr Trump threatened to derail his chances of winning the 2016 election, according to prosecutors.

Donald Trump is seated at the defence table inside the courtroom on 30 April
Donald Trump is seated at the defence table inside the courtroom on 30 April (Reuters)

The gag order in his criminal trial follows gag orders in his civil fraud case and in his federal election interference case, where prosecutors warned that his social media bully pulpit could be used to fuel attacks.

Special counsel Jack Smith’s team, which is overseeing Mr Trump’s federal criminal cases, described that dynamic in court documents last year as “part of a pattern, stretching back years, in which people publicly targeted” by Mr Trump are “subject to harassment, threats, and intimidation”.

The former president “seeks to use this well-known dynamic to his advantage”, the filing added, and “it has continued unabated as this case and other unrelated cases involving the defendant have progressed”.

Gag orders in the fraud case in New York blocked Mr Trump, his attorneys and all other parties in the case from disparaging court staff.

He was fined $15,000 for violating that order. His attorney Alina Habba ultimately paid the cheque to the court.

A state appeals court allowed his fraud trial gag orders to stand after court filings outlined the wave of credible death threats and abusive messages that followed Mr Trump’s attacks against court employees and others.

An official with the New York court system’s Department of Public Safety wrote in an affidavit last year that “the implementation of the limited gag orders” in the fraud case “resulted in a decrease in the number of threats, harassment, and disparaging messages that the judge and his staff received”.

The threats against New York justice Arthur Engoron and his clerk Allison Greenfield were “serious and credible and not hypothetical or speculative”, he wrote.

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