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Judge fines Trump for contempt and raises threat of jail in hush money trial

Former president Donald Trump was held in contempt and fined (Eduardo Munoz/Pool Photo via AP)
Former president Donald Trump was held in contempt and fined (Eduardo Munoz/Pool Photo via AP)

Donald Trump has been held in contempt of court and fined 9,000 dollars (£7,100) for repeatedly violating a gag order that barred him from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and some others connected to his New York hush money case.

And if he does it again, the judge warned, he could be jailed.

Prosecutors had alleged 10 violations, but New York Judge Juan M Merchan found there were nine.

Trump stared down at the table in front of him as the judge read the ruling on Tuesday, frowning slightly.

Trump Hush Money
Trump told reporters outside the court that ‘the case should never have been brought’ (Seth Wenig/AP)

The ruling was a stinging rebuke of the Republican former president’s insistence that he was exercising his free speech rights and a reminder that he is a criminal defendant subject to the harsh realities of trial procedure.

The judge’s suggestion that he may jail the former president signalled that Trump’s already precarious legal standing could further spiral depending on his behaviour during the trial.

Judge Merchan wrote that he is “keenly aware of, and protective of,” Trump’s First Amendment rights, “particularly given his candidacy for the office of president of the United States”.

“It is critically important that defendant’s legitimate free speech rights not be curtailed, that he be able to fully campaign for the office which he seeks and that he be able to respond and defend himself against political attacks,” he wrote.

Still, he warned that the court would not tolerate “wilful violations of its lawful orders and that if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, it will impose an incarceratory punishment”.

With that statement, the judge drew nearer the spectre of Trump becoming the first former president of the United States behind bars.

Trump is used to having constant access to his social media bullhorn to attack opponents and speak his mind. After he was banned from Twitter following the January 6 2021 attack on the Capitol, Trump launched his own platform, where his posts would not be blocked or restricted.

Trump Hush Money
Judge Juan Merchan ruled that the former president must pay a fine and remove several posts from his social media (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

And he has long tried to distance himself from controversial messages he has amplified to his millions of followers by insisting they are “only retweets”.

But he does have experience with gag orders, which were also imposed in his civil fraud trial. After he was found to have violated those orders, he paid more than 15,000 dollars (£11,900) in fines.

Tuesday’s ruling came at the start of the second week of testimony in the historic case, in which Manhattan prosecutors argue Trump and his associates took part in an illegal scheme to influence the 2016 presidential campaign by purchasing and then burying negative stories.

The payouts went to a doorman with a torrid yarn; former Playboy model Karen McDougal, who had accusations of an affair; and to porn performer Stormy Daniels, who alleged a sexual encounter with Trump. He has pleaded not guilty and says the stories are all fake.

Trump was ordered to pay the gag-order fine by the close of business on Friday and he deleted, as ordered, the offending posts from his Truth Social account and campaign website on Tuesday.

The judge is also weighing other alleged gag-order violations by Trump and will hear arguments on Thursday. He also announced that he will halt the trial on May 17 to allow Trump to attend his son Barron’s high school graduation.

Of the 10 posts, the one Judge Merchan ruled was not a violation came on April 10, a post referring to witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels as “sleaze bags”.

He said Trump’s contention that he was responding to previous posts by Mr Cohen “is sufficient to give” him pause on whether the post was a violation.

Trump Hush Money Who’s Who
Michael Cohen has said he will refrain from commenting about Trump until after he testifies at the trial (Yuki Iwamura/AP)

Among those he found to be violations, the judge ruled that a Trump post quoting Fox News host Jesse Watters’ claim that liberal activists were lying to infiltrate the jury “constitutes a clear violation” of the gag order.

He noted that the words contained within the quotation marks in Trump’s April 17 post misstated what Mr Watters actually said.

He cautioned that the gag order “not be used as a sword instead of a shield by potential witnesses” and that if people who are protected by the order, like Mr Cohen, continue to attack Trump “it becomes apparent” they do not need the gag order’s protection.

Mr Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, has said he will refrain from commenting about Trump until after he testifies at the trial.

On Tuesday, he said in a text message to the Associated Press: “The imposed fine is irrelevant. Judge Merchan’s decision elucidates that this behaviour will not be tolerated and that no one is above the law.”

Trump’s online posts were removed ahead of an afternoon deadline.

The posts in question were deleted while the court was in recess for lunch.

Links to the old Truth Social posts redirected to a “Not found” message, while those on Trump’s website redirected to a 404 error page.

In other developments, testimony resumed on Tuesday with Gary Farro, a banker who helped Mr Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, open accounts, including one that Mr Cohen used to buy Ms Daniels’ silence.

Donald Trump in court
Donald Trump in court (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)

Jurors also began hearing from Keith Davidson, a lawyer who represented Ms McDougal and Ms Daniels in their negotiations with the National Enquirer and Mr Cohen.

He testified that he arranged a meeting at his Los Angeles office to see whether the tabloid’s parent company was interested in Ms McDougal’s story. At first they demurred, saying she “lacked documentary evidence of the interaction”, Mr Davidson testified.

Discussion resumed a month later, and Mr Davidson warned that American Media Inc would need to move quickly because Ms McDougal was on the verge of signing a deal to tell her story to ABC News.

Mr Davidson told the jurors that he was playing the Enquirer and ABC News against each other to get the best deal for Ms McDougal. The ex-Playboy model did not want to tell her story publicly, which would have been required if she went to ABC, he said.

The tabloid eventually bought the story. Even as the deal was signed, Mr Davidson testified that he understood Ms McDougal’s story would never be published. Asked why American Media would buy a story it did not intend to run, Mr Davidson said he was aware of two reasons.

“One explanation I was given is they were trying to build Karen into a brand and didn’t want to diminish her brand,” he said. “And the second was an unspoken understanding that there was an affiliation between David Pecker and Donald Trump and that AMI wouldn’t run this story, any story related to Karen, because it would hurt Donald Trump.”

Trump’s son Eric joined him on Tuesday, the first time a family member has attended the criminal trial. Texas attorney general Ken Paxton walked into the courtroom with Trump and his entourage for the afternoon session.

Trump is charged with 34 felony counts of falsifying business records in connection with the hush money payments.

The detailed evidence on business transactions and bank accounts is setting the stage for testimony from Mr Cohen, who went to federal prison after pleading guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations and other crimes.

Jurors have also heard from Trump’s longtime executive assistant, Rhona Graff, who recounted that she recalled once seeing Ms Daniels at Trump’s office suite in Trump Tower and figured she was a potential contestant for one of Trump’s Apprentice-brand shows.

Former president Donald Trump at the court in New York
Former president Donald Trump at the court in New York (Justin Lane/Pool Photo via AP)

Last week, former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker laid out how he agreed to serve as the Trump campaign’s “eyes and ears” by helping to squelch unflattering rumours and claims about Trump and women. Mr Pecker described how he paid 180,000 dollars to scoop up and sit on stories.

Trump’s lawyers have suggested that he was engaged in an effort to protect his name and his family – not to influence the outcome of the presidential election.

The trial – the first of Trump’s four criminal cases to come before a jury – is expected to last for another month or more. And with every moment Trump is in court, he is growing increasingly frustrated while the November election moves ever closer.

For his part, Trump has been campaigning in his off-hours, but he is required to be in court when it is in session, four days a week. Outside the courtroom on Tuesday, he again criticised the case.

“This is a case that should have never been brought,” he said.