Did Trump Push the NY Judge Too Far?

The former president may be punished for violating a gag order.

Black and white portrait of Donald J. Trump

Mother Jones; Steven Senne/AP

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Once again, former President Donald Trump is about to find out just how far he can push a judge. On Tuesday morning, Trump’s attorneys faced an angry barrage of questions from New York Supreme Court Judge Juan Merchan, demanding they explain why Trump should not be fined for what prosecutors in his hush-money case say was “willfully and flagrantly” violating a gag order Merchan imposed on March 26. 

The hearing kicked off the second day of testimony in the historic case that focuses on whether Trump had falsified business records to pay off adult film star Stormy Daniels, among others, to keep negative stories about him from getting out in the runup to the 2016 election. It’s the first time a former president has been charged criminally, but it is just one of several criminal cases Trump is currently facing. Trump has admitted he made the payments but has denied that he had an affair with Daniels. On Monday, his attorneys said Trump had not committed any crime, he was simply trying to “influence an election. It’s called democracy.” But, prosecutors say that the steps that Trump and his allies—including both Trump Organization staff and campaign workers—took to make those payments and keep the stories secret amount to a criminal conspiracy. 

But before testimony could begin, Merchan spent most of Tuesday morning focused on whether Trump had violated the gag order Merchan imposed in March. The judge did so after Trump repeatedly spread rumors about Merchan’s daughter and denigrated several potential witnesses. The order allows Trump to complain about Merchan and Manhattan Attorney General Alvin Bragg, but forbids him from making “threatening, inflammatory, denigrating” statements about potential witnesses, court employees or their families, or jurors. At Tuesday’s hearing, prosecutors said they had ten instances of Trump violating that order when he complained about his former fixer Michael Cohen—likely to be a witness in the case—and reposting commentary from Fox News host Jesse Watters that alleged there was a conspiracy to sneak “undercover liberal activists” onto the jury. 

Bragg’s office proposed a $1,000 fine for each violation for a total of $10,000. 

Merchan did not immediately decide, but he appeared to be deeply irritated by Trump’s attorney, Todd Blanche, who claimed Trump was just responding to attacks from others. Blanche seemed unable to provide examples, nor could he cite case law supporting his claims, Merchan noted.

“You’ve presented nothing,” Merchan told Blanche. 

Shortly after this exchange, when Blanche insisted his client was doing his best to abide by the gag order, Merchan appeared to be openly scornful of the claim. “You’re losing all credibility with the court,” Merchan told the attorney.

The scene was reminiscent of Trump’s civil fraud trial last fall, also in New York, when he was found liable for more than $450 million for defrauding banks and insurance companies. During the trial, Trump used his Truth Social media platform to attack presiding Judge Arthur Engoron, courtroom staff, and several witnesses—including Cohen and Engoron’s clerk—until the judge also issued a gag order. After Trump continued his posts, Engoron held a hearing similar to Tuesday’s, during which he made Trump himself testify. After Trump claimed he had done nothing wrong, Engoron scornfully declared, “As the trier of fact, I find that the witness is not credible.” He fined Trump $15,000 for his gag order violations. 

While threats of fines of several thousand dollars would amount to a relative pittance compared to Trump’s wealth, the former president did tone down his behavior after the ruling and appeared to abide by that gag order—at least for the remainder of Tuesday. Merchan ended the day in court without deciding whether he would fine Trump the $10,000 requested by the prosecutors.

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