Criminal Justice

Trump found in contempt for violating gag order in hush money trial

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Former President Donald Trump and supporters

Former President Donald Trump greets construction workers and union members at the construction site for the new JPMorgan Chase headquarters in midtown Manhattan before going to Manhattan criminal court in New York. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The judge in Donald Trump’s New York hush money trial found the former president in contempt Tuesday for his critical public statements as proceedings entered their third week.

“The court finds the people have met their burden of proof and have demonstrated contempt. Mr. Trump is fined $1,000 on each of those two,” Justice Juan Merchan said in his written decision, referring to one set of alleged gag order violations.

“The Court finds Defendant in criminal contempt for willfully disobeying a lawful mandate of this Court in violation of [a judiciary law] on nine separate occasions,” Merchan wrote in an eight-page order. He also summarized his ruling on the record before testimony resumed.

Merchan also warned Trump that if he kept violating the order, the judge would consider putting Trump in jail for the violations. Trump has until 2:15 p.m. on Tuesday to remove “the seven offending posts from Defendant’s Truth Social account and the two offending posts from his campaign website.”

Merchan said the law limits the fines he can impose on Trump to $1,000 per violation. If those fines don’t stop Trump, Merchan wrote, he “must therefore consider whether in some instances, jail may be a necessary punishment.”

Putting Trump—the presumptive Republican nominee for president—behind bars would be a profound interruption to his campaign.

As of 3 p.m., Trump had not spoken to reporters at the courthouse since being found in contempt for violating his gag order. His first reaction came on Truth Social: “This Judge has taken away my Constitutional Right to FREE SPEECH. I am the only Presidential Candidate in History to be GAGGED. This whole “Trial” is RIGGED, and by taking away my FREEDOM OF SPEECH, THIS HIGHLY CONFLICTED JUDGE IS RIGGING THE PRESIDENTIAL OF 2024 ELECTION. ELECTION INTERFERENCE!!!”

Merchan issued a limited gag order before the trial, barring Trump from making comments that target witnesses, jurors, prosecutors and court staff. He also was barred from discussing family members of prosecutors and of Merchan after Trump and his supporters repeatedly attacked the judge’s adult daughter, who has professional ties to Democratic candidates.

In a hearing last week, the prosecution said it was not asking at this point for Trump to be sent to jail for contempt but said he “seems to be angling for that.” Trump has previously declared he would be willing to go to jail over the issue of the gag order.

In his written order, Merchan concluded that reposts on social media are considered statements by Trump for the purpose of the gag order.

The concept was somewhat novel, Merchan said, noting that there isn’t legal precedent for such a finding.

“The issue of ‘reposting’ appears to be a question of first impression,” Merchan wrote. “Lacking legal authority to guide its decision, this Court must, as defense counsel stated at the hearing, rely on common sense.”

The judge wrote that reposts aren’t automatically a violation of the gag order, but the circumstances in this case led him to conclude that Trump’s reposts were problematic.

Merchan found that Trump’s posts to Truth Social and messages on his campaign website are clearly considered statements from Trump, who “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, [Trump] endorsed the posts with one purpose in mind - to maximize viewership and to communicate his stamp of approval,” the judge added.

The judge also issued a warning on the issue to prosecution witnesses Michael Cohen and Stormy Daniels.

In the ruling, Merchan acknowledged that public statements from witnesses attacking a defendant are also problematic, and he said he may decide that people who do that will no longer be protected by the gag order.

Cohen, in particular, has incessantly attacked Trump since the trial started, although last week he publicly vowed to cease until the trial is over.

“The underlying purpose of the restriction on extrajudicial statements is to protect the integrity of these proceedings,” Merchan noted. “However, if a protected party turns that underlying purpose on its head, it becomes apparent that the protected party likely does not need to be protected.

Before the ruling, Trump criticized the judge in the hallway outside the courtroom. “I’ve never seen a judge so conflicted, and giving us virtually no rulings,” Trump said. “It’s the most recusable judge. It’s called recusal abuse. … But really, more importantly than the recusal, he should terminate the case today.”

Also Tuesday, the trial’s third witness—Gary Farro, a banker who worked with former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen—concluded his testimony.

Prosecutors asked about his quick opening of a new bank account for Michael Cohen in the days before the 2016 presidential election, displaying emails showing that Cohen had opened an account with First Republic Bank in late October 2016 for a newly created consulting business.

Farro testified that Cohen did not disclose that the business account could be used to make an election-related payment or that the payment could be used to pay a person in the pornography industry. Farro said those disclosures would have required extra scrutiny, possibly delaying the opening of the account or making it possible that the account would not have been opened at all.

When asked why the bank moved so fast to open the account, Farro responded, “Everything was urgent with Michael Cohen.”

In the defense’s cross-examination, attorney Todd Blanche has attempted to highlight that Cohen - not Trump - spearheaded the payment to Stormy Daniels.

Blanche displayed a form filled out by Cohen in which he checked a box showing that his company that would be making the transfer was not associated with political fundraising or a political action committee. Blanche then asked again whether Cohen had talked to Farro about his relationship with Trump or whether the banker had any conversations himself with Trump.

“I have not,” Farro said.

To build out their case that Trump orchestrated a scheme to cover up past sexual trysts, prosecutors showed the jury footage from some of his 2016 campaign appearances.

“I have no idea who these women are, and I think you know I have no idea,” he told a cheering crowd in one video excerpt. “The stories are total fiction. They’re 100 percent made up. They never happened. They never would happen.”

Former Stormy Daniels lawyer Keith Davidson later took the stand. He negotiated the $130,000 hush money payment with Michael Cohen on the adult-film actress’s behalf.

Davidson detailed how he approached the National Enquirer in June 2016 with the story that Karen MacDougal, a former Playboy model, allegedly had an affair with Trump while he was married. Davidson was MacDougal’s attorney.

“I have a blockbuster Trump story,” Davidson texted Dylan Howard, a National Enquirer editor.

“Talk 1st thing. I will get you more than ANYONE FOR IT. You know why,” Howard responded.

Howard asked if the alleged affair occurred while Donald Trump was married to his current wife, Melania. The two then set up a meeting.

The grocery store tabloid—in coordination with the Trump campaign—would purchase the rights to Trump stories and then not publish them, according to earlier testimony in the trial.

McDougal’s story - and then a subsequent payment from an executive at the National Enquirer to her for it - is not part of the criminal charges against Trump. But prosecutors are highlighting the issue to the jury to try to show that Trump was attempting to bury any story ahead of the election that could damage his reputation with voters.

In a text between lawyer Keith Davidson and the National Enquirer to negotiate the sale of McDougal’s story, Davidson warned that they should move quickly because the “estrogen mafia” was pressuring the former Playboy model to go elsewhere with her story.

When questioned Tuesday morning about the exchange, Davidson—who represented McDougal—said a group of women was pushing McDougal to tell the story of her alleged affair with Donald Trump to ABC. Davidson said on the stand Tuesday it was a “regrettable text.”

Davidson also testified Tuesday that he thought it was strange that a lawyer for the National Enquirer, who was involved in the deal, wanted him to call Trump’s personal counsel.

As court opened, Merchan gave permission for Donald Trump to attend his son Barron’s high school graduation on May 17. Also, for the first time, Donald Trump’s son Eric Trump was in the courtroom, taking a seat in the front row of the gallery while his father went to the defense table. Eric is the first Trump relative to attend this trial.

Seated near Eric Trump in the courtroom were a couple of Donald Trump’s allies, including adviser Susan Wiles and a supporter, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has had highly publicized legal problems: He reached a deal last month to have felony securities fraud charges dismissed and is still in office after surviving an impeachment trial last year.

The trial will take another break Wednesday. The trial is not being televised. The Washington Post has reporters in the courtroom and media overflow room who are posting live updates.

Trump faces 34 counts of falsifying business records related to his reimbursement of Cohen for a hush money payment before the 2016 election to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels, who alleged that she had a sexual encounter with Trump years earlier.

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