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Judge in hush money trial threatens Trump with jail after holding him in contempt for violating gag order

Judge Juan Merchan warned that if Trump continues to violate the order, he could impose “an incarceratory punishment.”
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The judge presiding over Donald Trump’s hush money case on Tuesday held the former president in criminal contempt over a series of posts on Truth Social that he said violated a gag order barring any attacks on jurors and witnesses and warned Trump he could be jailed for further violations.

Judge Juan Merchan ruled Trump in contempt for nine violations of his gag order, with a fine of $1,000 for each instance. He warned in the decision that he would not tolerate further violations of the order and said "if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances," he would impose "an incarceratory punishment" on the former president.

The judge explained that because the fines, which are limited by state law, were relatively little in comparison to Trump's wealth, they might be unlikely to deter the former president from abiding by the court's order. Merchan said that while he would prefer to impose commensurately larger fines, he instead had to consider "whether in some instances, jail may be a necessary punishment."

The gag order prohibits the former president from "making or directing others to make public statements about known or reasonably foreseeable witnesses concerning their potential participation in the investigation or in this criminal proceeding," and "public statements about any prospective juror or any juror."

Merchan said Tuesday that his order was "lawful and unambiguous" and that Trump violated it with social media posts about witnesses and public comments about jurors. He ordered Trump to remove seven of the posts at issue from his Truth Social account and two other offending posts from his campaign website by 2:15 p.m. Tuesday.

The judge also said in response to Trump's complaints about the comments of expected witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels have made outside court that he might consider modifying the gag order to remove them from its protections if he finds it necessary in the future.

Cohen said in a statement in response to the judge's decision that the small fine "is irrelevant. Judge Merchan’s decision elucidates that this behavior will not be tolerated and that no one is above the law.”

Merchan had indicated on April 23 that he was not impressed by the arguments from the defense, telling one of Trump's attorneys that he was “losing all credibility” when he suggested that Trump was exercising caution to comply with the gag order.

Prosecutors from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had accused Trump of violating Merchan's April 1 order at least 10 times since it went into effect, including a post that called expected witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels "sleaze bags." Another appeared to be a quote from Fox News personality Jesse Watters that read, “They are catching undercover Liberal Activists lying to the Judge in order to get on the Trump Jury.”

The DA sought the maximum $1,000 fine for each post they considered a violation, along with an order that Trump remove the posts. Prosecutors had also asked Merchan to warn Trump that any future violations could be met with additional fines and up to 30 days in jail.

The possibility of Trump's imprisonment is likely to be seized upon by the former president's campaign and supporters — particularly as a fundraising tool. Already, Trump has sent a number of fundraising appeals connected to the trial and the consequences he may face. Last year, his mug shot after he was charged in Georgia over his efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election sparked a fundraising bonanza for Trump.

Prosecutor Chris Conroy said during an April 23 morning hearing that Trump “seems to be angling” to be locked up for political purposes.

Trump’s legal team countered that the former president had not willfully violated the order and that he was simply responding to a “barrage of political attacks.”

Pressed by the judge, however, Trump attorney Todd Blanche had trouble identifying what attacks Trump was supposedly responding to. “I keep asking you over and over to give me an example, and I’m not getting an answer,” the judge said.

Trump attorney Emil Bove previously said that some of the posts were responses to remarks by Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, and that others were reposted from people and news outlets, which he said did not violate the gag order. Merchan asked for case law to back that position, and Blanche said he did not have any. "It's just common sense, your Honor," Blanche said.

Merchan responded to that assertion in his decision Tuesday, saying he had found that "a repost, whether with or without commentary by the Defendant, is in fact a statement of the Defendant."

"The issue of 'reposting' appears to be a question of first impression," the judge wrote. "Lacking legal authority to guide its decision, this Court must, as defense counsel stated at the hearing, rely on common sense. ... Defendant curated the posts at issue and then took the necessary steps to publish the posts on his Truth Social account and on his campaign website. In doing so, he endorsed the posts with one purpose in mind — to maximize viewership and to communicate his stamp of approval.”

Trump has pleaded not guilty to 34 counts of falsifying business records related to his reimbursement to Cohen for the lawyer's hush money payment to Daniels in the closing days of the 2016 campaign. Daniels claims she had a sexual encounter with Trump in 2006, an allegation he denies.

Trump faces up to four years in prison if he’s convicted.