NY Judge Holds Trump In Contempt For Attacking Witnesses, Threatens Jail

Former US President Donald Trump looks on in the courtroom, during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, in New York City, on April 30, 2024. Trump, 77, is accused of... Former US President Donald Trump looks on in the courtroom, during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments linked to extramarital affairs, in New York City, on April 30, 2024. Trump, 77, is accused of falsifying business records to reimburse his lawyer, Michael Cohen, for a $130,000 hush money payment made to porn star Stormy Daniels just days ahead of the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz / POOL / AFP) (Photo by EDUARDO MUNOZ/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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NEW YORK — New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan threatened to incarcerate Donald Trump on Tuesday if he continues to flout a gag order imposed to block him and others from attacking witnesses in his criminal case.

Merchan said in an order released Tuesday morning that if Trump continued to violate the judge’s orders, he would “impose incarceratory punishment.”

The threat came as Merchan held Trump in contempt of court, fining him $1,000 per statement for nine social media posts that attacked witnesses in the case.

It adds up to a total fine of $9,000 for the posts, which included attacks on Michael Cohen and a post boosting a statement by Fox News host Jesse Watters that claimed jurors in the case were biased.

Merchan made a point in the contempt order of leaving open the possibility that he could send Trump to jail for continuing to violate the order. New York state law limits him to fining Trump $1,000 per violation; Merchan wrote that such a small monetary amount “will not achieve the desired result in those instances where the contemnor can easily afford such a fine.”

He added that while he would prefer to impose a fine “commensurate with the wealth” of the offender, he lacked that power and would “therefore consider whether in some instances, jail may be a necessary punishment.”

Merchan, so far, is only threatening to incarcerate the former and potentially future President. Trump has brazenly flouted the judge’s order over the past several weeks, including in a manner intended to strike directly at the judge. Trump frequently posted about Merchan’s daughter, a fact that Manhattan DA prosecutors drew to Merchan’s attention during a contempt hearing last week.

Prosecutors have another contempt motion outstanding, over an additional four allegations that Trump violated the order. Merchan has scheduled a hearing about that for Thursday.

The DA’s Office had submitted ten violations to Judge Merchan, all of which took place over the course of a week which spanned the beginning of jury selection in the first-ever criminal trial of a former President.

Of the ten, Merchan found that nine violated the gag order. The one which Merchan found did not qualify featured Trump thanking Michael Avenatti on Truth Social “for revealing the truth about two sleaze bags” — Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels.

The other nine posts include Trump calling Cohen a “disgraced attorney and felon,” multiple posts calling Cohen a “serial perjurer,” and the Jesse Watters video clip.

Prosecutors had emphasized the Watters repost, in which Trump put quotes around a statement that called jurors “undercover Liberal Activists,” in part because the day after Trump made the post, an already-seated juror withdrew, citing negative attention from the media. It led to a surreal argument during the contempt hearing in which Trump’s lawyers maintained that his reposting was not an endorsement of the underlying statement.

But Merchan found that Trump himself had so grossly misstated Watters’ remarks that the post “constitutes the words of Defendant himself.”

Merchan also outlined his own thinking of how to manage a difficult task: protecting the trial and its witnesses from attack while taking Trump’s status as a major presidential candidate into account.

Trump’s attorneys had raised the argument as a defense, suggesting that Trump was not violating the gag order, but rather was merely responding to political attacks as part of the normal course of his campaign. Defense lawyers — and Trump himself — had then argued that any attempt to enforce the gag order on Trump would violate the First Amendment rights of the presumptive GOP nominee.

Merchan addressed the issue directly. Trump needs to “be able to fully campaign for the office which he seeks” and must “be able to respond and defend himself against political attacks,” Merchan wrote in the order, adding that witnesses shouldn’t take advantage of the gag and use it as a “sword instead of a shield.”

The limit, Merchan wrote, comes when there’s no precipitating political attack to which Trump might be responding. Merchan did not hold Trump in contempt for the Avenatti post in part because of what Merchan described as a “tenuous correlation” to a preceding post that Cohen had made. For the remaining ten, Merchan wrote, Trump’s attorneys had failed to identify any political attack which Trump might have been responding.

Even that provides Trump with a significant amount of leeway: if Michael Cohen criticizes Trump, per the ruling, the former President can respond without violating the order.

At the same time, there’s little indication that Trump will have such an opportunity. Cohen said last week that he would stop speaking about Trump until after his testimony concludes.

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