Trump threatened with jail over gag order violations: ‘$1,000 fines are not serving as a deterrent’

‘The magnitude of such a decision is not lost on me,’ judge told Trump in court on Monday

Alex Woodward
in Manhattan criminal court
Monday 06 May 2024 19:29 BST
Trump backtracks on false claim about gag order

The judge overseeing Donald Trump’s hush money trial will consider putting the former president in jail if he continues to violate a gag order intended to protect witnesses, jurors, court staff and their families.

New York Justice Juan Merchan warned Mr Trump on Monday that jail remains “truly a last resort” that would disrupt the proceedings, court staff and law enforcement.

“The magnitude of such a decision is not lost on me,” the judge said to Mr Trump inside a criminal courtroom in Manhattan on Monday.

“But at the end of the day I have a job to do, and part of that job is to protect the dignity of the justice system,” he said. “Your continued violations … threaten to interfere with the administration of justice, and constitute a direct attack on the rule of law.”

Mr Trump was found in contempt of court and fined $1,000 for his comments about the jury, on the heels of last week’s contempt ruling and a $9,000 fine for nine other violations of the protective order.

The former president was also ordered to remove any related posts from his social media platform, Truth Social, and content from his campaign website by 2.15pm on Monday.

Donald Trump appears in a criminal courtroom in Manhattan on 6 May as the fourth week of his hush money trial begins
Donald Trump appears in a criminal courtroom in Manhattan on 6 May as the fourth week of his hush money trial begins (AP)

Manhattan prosecutors accused Mr Trump of four other violations, including comments made during an interview with far-right network Real America’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.

“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.”

Last week, Judge Merchan grew increasingly impatient with Mr Trump’s attorney Todd Blanche, cutting him off at one point as he claimed that the trial is “political persecution”, and a “political trial” in a “jurisdiction”, that is biased against the former president.

“Did he violate the gag order? That’s what I want to know,” Judge Merchan said last Thursday. “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?”

In a written order on Monday, the judge noted that because Mr Trump made those comments prior to the decision on 30 April, he will only face a monetary fine.

But he also wrote: “However, because this is now the [10th] time that this Court has found Defendant in criminal contempt, spanning three separate motions, it is apparent that monetary fines have not, and will not, suffice to deter Defendant from violating this Court’s lawful orders.”

Donald Trump and his attorney Todd Blanche appear in a Manhattan criminal courthouse on 6 May
Donald Trump and his attorney Todd Blanche appear in a Manhattan criminal courthouse on 6 May (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Trump’s comments about the jury have not only “called into question the integrity and therefore the legitimacy” of the trial but also “raised the specter of fear for the safety of the jurors and of their loved ones,” according to the judge.

“It remains this Court’s fundamental responsibility to protect the decency of the criminal process and to control disruptive influences in the courtroom,” he wrote.

So far, Mr Trump has been fined $25,000 for violating trial gag orders in both his criminal case and his civil fraud trial last year, where Justice Arthur Engoron imposed $15,000 in penalties for his statements about his court staff.

The Republican presidential candidate also faces a gag order in his federal election interference case, where federal 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”, prosecutors wrote, 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.

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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