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Judge holds Trump in contempt, fines him $9,000 and raises threat of jail in hush money trial

By MICHAEL R. SISAK, JENNIFER PELTZ, JAKE OFFENHARTZ and COLLEEN LONG, MICHAEL R. SISAK, JENNIFER PELTZ, JAKE OFFENHARTZ and COLLEEN LONG, Associated Press
Published: April 30, 2024, 10:44am

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump was held in contempt of court Tuesday and fined $9,000 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, frowning slightly.

It was a stinging rebuke of the Republican former president’s insistence that he was exercising his free speech rights and a reminder that he’s a criminal defendant subject to the harsh realities of trial procedure. And the judge’s remarkable threat to jail a former president signaled that Trump’s already precarious legal standing could further spiral depending on his behavior during the remainder of the trial.

Trump did not respond to reporters’ shouted inquiries about the fine in the courthouse hallway as court resumed for the afternoon.

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,” Merchan wrote.

Still, he warned that the court would not tolerate “willful 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 specter 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 slam opponents and speak his mind. After he was banned from Twitter following the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by his supporters, Trump launched his own platform, where his posts wouldn’t be blocked or restricted. And he has long tried to distance himself from controversial messages he’s amplified to his millions of followers by insisting they’re “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 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 seamy stories. The payouts went to a doorman with a torrid yarn; ex-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 Friday, and he deleted, as ordered, the offending posts from his Truth Social account and campaign website Tuesday. The judge was also weighing other alleged gag-order violations by Trump and will hear arguments 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 Merchan ruled was not a violation came on April 10, a post referring to witnesses Michael Cohen and Daniels as “sleaze bags.” Merchan said Trump’s contention that he was responding to previous posts by Cohen “is sufficient to give” him pause on whether the post was a violation.

Those found to be violations included 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. Merchan noted that the words contained within the quotation marks in Trump’s April 17 post misstated what Watters actually said.

Merchan 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 Cohen, continue to attack Trump “it becomes apparent” they don’t need the gag order’s protection.

Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, 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 behavior will not be tolerated and that no one is above the law.”

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In other developments, testimony resumed Tuesday with Gary Farro, a banker who helped Cohen open accounts, including one that Cohen used to buy Daniels’ silence.

Jurors also began hearing from Keith Davidson, a lawyer who represented McDougal and Daniels in their negotiations with the National Enquirer and Cohen. He testified that he arranged a meeting at his Los Angeles office to see whether the tabloid’s parent company was interested in McDougal’s story. At first they demurred, saying she “lacked documentary evidence of the interaction,” Davidson testified.

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

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

The tabloid eventually bought the story. Even as the deal was signed, Davidson testified that he understood McDougal’s story would never be published. Asked why American Media would buy a story it didn’t intend to run, 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 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 Cohen, who went to federal prison after pleading guilty in 2018 to campaign finance violations and other crimes.

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 rumors and claims about Trump and women. Pecker described how he paid $180,000 to scoop up and sit on stories.

Trump’s attorneys 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’s growing increasingly frustrated while the November election moves ever closer.

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

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