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Judge alters Trump’s gag order, letting him talk about witnesses, jury after hush money conviction

By MICHAEL R. SISAK, Associated Press
Published: June 25, 2024, 1:32pm

NEW YORK (AP) — A Manhattan judge on Tuesday modified Donald Trump’s gag order, freeing the former president to comment publicly about witnesses and jurors in the hush money criminal trial that led to his felony conviction, but keeping others connected to the case off limits until he is sentenced July 11.

Judge Juan M. Merchan’s decision — just days before Trump’s debate Thursday with President Joe Biden — clears the presumptive Republican nominee to again go on the attack against his lawyer-turned-foe lawyer Michael Cohen, porn actor Stormy Daniels and other trial witnesses. Trump was convicted in New York on May 30 of falsifying records to cover up a potential sex scandal, making him the first ex-president convicted of a crime.

In a five-page ruling, Merchan wrote that the gag order was meant to “protect the integrity of the judicial proceedings” and that protections for witnesses and jurors no longer applied now that the trial has ended and the jury has been discharged.

Merchan said it had been his “strong preference” to continue barring Trump from commenting about jurors, whose names have not been made public, but that he couldn’t justify doing so. The judge did leave in place a separate order prohibiting Trump and his lawyers from disclosing the identities of individual jurors or their addresses. Trump lawyer Todd Blanche said after the verdict the defense team has destroyed that information.

“There is ample evidence to justify continued concern for the jurors,” Merchan wrote.

Merchan also left in place a ban on Trump commenting about court staffers, the prosecution team and their families until he is sentenced, writing that they must “continue to perform their lawful duties free from threats, intimidation, harassment, and harm.” Those restrictions do not prohibit Trump from commenting about the judge himself or District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whose office prosecuted the case.

Trump’s lawyers had urged Merchan to lift the gag order completely, arguing there was nothing to warrant restricting Trump’s First Amendment rights after the trial’s conclusion. Trump has said the gag order prevented him from defending himself while Cohen and Daniels continued to pillory him.

Though largely a win for Trump, his campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung criticized Tuesday’s ruling as “another unlawful decision by a highly conflicted judge, which is blatantly un-American as it gags President Trump, the leading candidate in the 2024 Presidential Election during the upcoming Presidential Debate on Thursday.”

Cheung said Trump and his lawyers “will immediately challenge today’s unconstitutional order,” arguing that portions of the gag order still in effect prevent him from speaking about the judge, whom he alleges had a conflict of interest, or repeating his unfounded claims that Biden directed the prosecution.

The Manhattan DA’s office had asked Merchan to keep the gag order’s ban on comments about the jury and trial staff in place at least until Trump is sentenced, but said last week they would be OK allowing Trump to comment about witnesses now that the trial is over.

A message seeking comment was left with the Manhattan DA’s office.

Cohen, who testified for four days against his ex-boss, reacted to the ruling via text message. He wrote: “For the past 6 years, Donald and acolytes have been making constant negative statements about me. Donald’s failed strategy of discrediting me so that he can avoid accountability didn’t work then and won’t work now.”

Daniels’ lawyer Clark Brewster said they “have nothing but respect” for Merchan and defer to his post-verdict review of the gag order “in the context of free speech and any continuing danger to the judicial process.”

“His decision to impose restrictions on Mr. Trump, as it related to reckless and unrelenting character attacks on court personnel, trial witnesses, and potentially jurors was extraordinary but clearly justified given the defendant’s uncontrollable daily rants,” Brewster said.

Trump was convicted on 34 counts of falsifying business records arising from what prosecutors said was an attempt to cover up a hush money payment to Daniels just before the 2016 presidential election. She claims she had a sexual encounter with Trump a decade earlier, which he denies.

The crime is punishable by up to four years behind bars, but prosecutors haven’t said if they would seek incarceration and it’s unclear if Merchan would impose such a sentence. Other options include a fine or probation.

Following his conviction, Trump complained he was under a “nasty gag order,” while also testing its limits. In remarks a day after his conviction, Trump referred to Cohen as “a sleazebag,” though not by name.

In a subsequent Newsmax interview, Trump took issue with jury and its makeup, complaining about Manhattan, “It’s a very, very liberal democrat area so I knew we were in deep trouble,” and claiming: “I never saw a glimmer of a smile from the jury. No, this was a venue that was very unfair. A tiny fraction of the people are Republicans.”

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Trump’s lawyers, who said they were under the impression the gag order would end with a verdict, wrote to Merchan on June 4 asking him to lift the order.

Prosecutors wanted Merchan to keep the gag order’s ban on comments about jurors and trial staff “at least through the sentencing hearing and the resolution of any post-trial motions.” They argued the judge had “an obligation to protect the integrity of these proceedings and the fair administration of justice.”

Merchan issued Trump’s gag order on March 26, a few weeks before the start of the trial, after prosecutors raised concerns about the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s propensity to assail people involved in his cases.

Merchan later expanded it to prohibit comments about his own family after Trump made social media posts attacking the judge’s daughter, a Democratic political consultant.

During the trial, Merchan held Trump in contempt of court, fined him $10,000 for violating the gag order and threatened to put him in jail if he did it again.

In seeking to lift the order, Trump lawyers Todd Blanche and Emil Bove argued that Trump was entitled to “unrestrained campaign advocacy” in light of Biden’s public comments about the verdict, and Cohen and Daniels ′ continued public criticism.

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