Trump’s ‘surrogates’ target witnesses and the judge’s daughter. Could their actions put him in jail?

Legal analysts say Trump is violating a court order against ‘making or directing’ attacks, but prosecutors and the judge likely do not want to spend time on another sideshow as the trial comes to a close

Alex Woodward
in New York
Thursday 16 May 2024 01:47
Trump says his 'surrogates' are 'speaking beautifully' in his hush money trial

One after the other, in press conferences steps outside a Manhattan courthouse, Donald Trump’s allies have repeated familiar attacks against the daughter of the judge presiding over the criminal case against the former president.

They fired off similar attacks about star witness Michael Cohen, who was testifying in a courtroom 15 floors above them.

Prosecutors are moments away from closing their case, and the judge is eager for the trial to keep moving along without any further interruptions.

But an avalanche of recent attacks seemingly directed by Mr Trump to his lackeys – which include the country’s highest-ranking Republican – could be grounds for severe sanctions against him.

A protective order blocks Mr Trump from “making or directing others to make public statements” about trial witnesses and potential witnesses, jurors and prospective jurors, attorneys, court staff and their families.

Asked by reporters inside the courthouse on Tuesday if he is “directing” those attacks, he didn’t exactly deny it.

“I do have a lot of surrogates and they are speaking very beautifully,” he said. “They come from all over Washington, and they’re highly respected and they think this is the biggest scam they’ve ever seen.”

The former president also appeared to read through their attacks and take notes while seated inside the courtroom.

Prominent allies of Donald Trump appeared in a Manhattan criminal courthouse to support the former president during his hush money trial on 14 May. (AP)

Mr Trump has already violated the gag order 10 times, racking up $10,000 in fines. New York Justice Juan Merchan has warned the defendant that financial penalties don’t seem to be working as a deterrent, and any future violations could result in jailtime.

He could be held in contempt, again, if prosecutors can show to the judge that Mr Trump is directing his supporters to violate the gag and fuelling attacks against people who are supposed to be protected, according to Norm Eisen, author of Trying Trump: A Guide to His First Election Interference Criminal Trial.

Andrew Rice, who has been covering the trial for New York magazine, told MSNBC on Tuesday night that he could see Mr Trump at the defense table inside the courtroom reading quotes from his allies “and going through and making notations with a pen” while Cohen was testifying.

“That observation alone is probably not enough to satisfy the legal standard, though,” Mr Eisen told The Independent.

“With the brunt of the testimony in and the case now largely over, the prosecution and the judge may not choose to squander time, energy, and capital on this sideshow,” he said. “Instead, they might focus on the main event – concluding this trial, which (at least so far) has been going well for the prosecution and accountability. But we shall see.”

On Monday, Senator JD Vance made Mr Trump’s intentions clear: His allies are there to say what Mr Trump is “prevented from saying, which is a disgrace.”

Senator Tommy Tuberville was even more explicit:

“Hopefully we will have more and more senators and congressmen go up every day to represent him and be able to go out and overcome this gag order,” he told Newsmax on Tuesday.

“That’s one of the reasons we went, is to be able to speak our peace for President Trump.”

Joey Jackson, a former Assistant District Attorney under Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau, told The Independent that it could be “very difficult to prove, but based upon his prior history and recent violations of the gag order, one might infer that Trump directed his surrogates to attack Justice Merchan’s daughter as well as the legitimacy of the case itself.”

“All of Trump’s surrogates – many of which are vice presidential hopefuls – seemed to be reading from the same script as they attacked the judge’s daughter,” he said. “This is highly problematic and represents an affront to our system of justice.”

The gag order is intended to “ensure the safety and security of jurors, witnesses, and others connected to the case,” and it is “essential” that the court prevent any threats of intimidation or violence, Mr Jackson told The Independent.

“The former president’s continued disregard for the gag order is concerning,” he said. “So much so that the judge previously noted that jail could be a consideration for future transgressions.”

Vivek Ramaswamy, center, and US Rep Cory Mills, left, enter a Manhattan courtroom to observe Donald Trump’s hush money trial on 14 May. (EPA)

US Rep Byron Donalds – among congressional Republicans who joined Mr Trump in court and then lashed out at the judge’s daughter – claimed that the gag order doesn’t allow the former president to offer up any “legitimate rebuttal” to statements in the press and from witnesses.

“This is WRONG,” he wrote. “So WE are going to stand-up for him.”

Asked by The Independent whether he believe he’s helping Mr Trump by speaking out, Mr Donalds claimed that it is “incumbent” upon not just Mr Trump’s “surrogates” but on “people who are supportive to be able to speak out about what they’re seeing in New York, so that the American people know exactly what’s happening.”

“We have a responsibility as members of Congress, not just the bills that come off this floor, but upholding our government, upholding our Constitution,” he told The Independent. “That goes for all branches.”

Former federal prosecutor Eric Lisann suggested that members of Congress who appeared at the courthouse to attack witnesses and the jury could be subpoenaed.

“But they think it would be a distracting circus and it could well be,” Mr Lisann wrote. “That doesn’t mean though it is less problematic than doing nothing.”

If Mr Trump did write courtroom notes for his allies, that could be “direct evidence of contempt,” he said.

“The case can be proven,” he added. “Will it be a circus and go up on appeal? Is that something to fear such that Trump’s behavior must be indulged at all costs, making a mockery of the proceedings?”

Additional reporting from Eric Garcia in Washington DC

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