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Trump ordered to pay $9,000 for violating gag order in criminal hush money trial

Former President Donald Trump has been held in contempt of court and fined $9,000 for violating a gag orderaimed at protecting witnesses and jurors in his Manhattan criminal trial.

Prosecutors in Trump's criminal trial last month asked Judge Juan Merchan to fine him $10,000 — $1,000 each for 10 posts — for violating a gag order and rule Trump in contempt of court. Merchan on Tuesday fined Trump for nine of those posts.

Trump was ordered to pay the money by Friday, May 3, and remove seven offending posts from his Truth Social account, and two posts from his campaign website by 2:15 p.m. on Tuesday.

"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," Merchan wrote in his order. "It is of utmost importance to this Court that the Expanded Order not be used as a sword instead of a shield by potential witnesses."

But Merchan also warned Trump that the court "will not tolerate continued willful violations of its lawful orders and that if necessary and appropriate under the circumstances, it will impose an incarceratory punishment." In other words, the court must "consider whether in some instances, jail may be a necessary punishment."

Last week, prosecutors asked Merchan to hold Trump in contempt for 10 posts made on Trump's Truth Social profile and his official campaign profile about potential witnesses in the case, including former lawyer Michael Cohen and adult film star Stormy Daniels; among those 10 posts was one that echoed Fox News host Jesse Waters' opinion that "undercover liberal activists" were "lying to the judge in order to get on the Trump jury."

On Thursday, Merchan will also hold a hearing regarding four additional posts brought up by the prosecution last week.

Weeks before the trial began, Merchan issued a gag order on Trump that specifically bars him from making or directing others to make public statements about potential jurors, court staff or family members of staff.

Last week, Trump went after Cohen again in the courthouse hallway as he left for the day.

"When are they going to look at all the lies that Cohen did in the last trial?" Trump said. Prosecutors last week argued this statement amounted to another violation and they plan to file another order Tuesday.

Trump, the presumptive 2024 GOP presidential nominee, is accused of 34 felony counts of falsifying business records with the intent to further other crimes ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges. The jury has already heard from several witnesses including former National Enquirer publisher David Pecker, First Republic Bank banker Gary Farro and longtime Trump executive assistant Rhona Graff.

Trump's lawyer Todd Blanche argued that when Trump took to Truth Social to talk about the case, he was simply defending himself against attacks from Daniels and Cohen. But when pressed by Merchan to provide specific examples of those attacks, Blanche did not provide any. Blanche also tried to argue that prosecutors did not challenge every single related repost on Trump's social media profile, which Merchan seemed to dismiss outright.

"You're losing all the credibility with the court," Merchan warned Trump's lawyers as they debated whether or not Trump was trying to comply with the order.

Trump has challenged the gag order, including a failed attempt to delay the trial while he fought it. An appeals court judge's decision to keep the gag order in place came less than a week before jury selection began.

Trump has argued that this order is unconstitutionally limiting his political speech as he campaigns to be the next president. In the ruling that put the gag order in place, Merchan rejected Trump's assertion that his statements "constitute core political speech."

The current gag order does not cover Merchan or District Attorney Alvin Bragg. Both have also been a recipient of the former president's ire.

In a series of postson Truth Social, his social media platform, Trump, without evidence called the gag order "ELECTION INTERFERENCE."

The former president has faced penalties for violating gag orders in his prior New York trials. In the fall he was fined a collective$15,000 for two violations in his civil fraud trial — one instance which resulted in Trump unexpectedly being called up to the witness stand. Both fines were for statements seemingly made about the judge's clerk.

The judge in that case, Arthur Engoron, noted that his chambers had been "inundated with hundreds of harassing and threatening phone calls, voicemails, emails, letters and packages" since beginning the trial.

Trump also faces a gag order in his federal election interference case in Washington, D.C., which limits public statements on prosecutors, court staffers and their family members — if those remarks were designed to interfere with lawyers' or court staff's work on the case.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Ximena Bustillo
Ximena Bustillo is a multi-platform reporter at NPR covering politics out of the White House and Congress on air and in print.