Trump held in contempt of court in New York trial for gag order violations

Judge in hush money trial says Trump violated the order nine times and warns future violations could result in jail time.

Former US President Donald Trump awaits the start of proceedings at Manhattan criminal court in New York [Eduardo Munoz/The Associated Press]

The judge in Donald Trump’s New York hush money trial has held the former United States president in contempt of court for repeatedly violating a gag order.

The order prohibited Trump from speaking publicly and posting on social media about individuals involved in the trial.

Judge Juan Merchan on Tuesday said Trump had violated the order nine times. He fined Trump $1,000 per violation: With nine of statements identified as breaching the order, the fine came to a total of $9,000.

Prosecutors had detailed 14 possible violations to the court, and Merchan could make more determinations at a hearing on Thursday.

The judge also ordered Trump to remove seven “offending posts” from his Truth Social account and two from a campaign website by Tuesday afternoon.

He added that Trump was “hereby warned 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”.

Trump, however, posted to Truth Social during the day’s proceedings to complain about the trial — and denounce some of its key players.

“This is a total Witch Hunt,” he wrote, calling out the judge in particular. “Merchan is Rigged, Crooked and above all, and without question, CONFLICTED.”

A historic trial

The decision to fine Trump came as his criminal trial entered its third week. The former president faces 34 felony counts of falsifying business records related to alleged hush money paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels, who claims she and Trump had a sexual encounter.

Many of the gag order violations relate to Daniels, as well as Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen. Both are expected to testify at the trial.

Trump is not only barred from attacking witnesses but also jurors, court staff and their relatives.

The charges against Trump relate to $130,000 he allegedly reimbursed to Cohen, after the lawyer paid Daniels for her silence.

Trump has denied any sexual liaison with Daniels. His lawyers have argued he was acting within the law, to spare his family embarrassment.

However, to make felony charges stand, prosecutors must convince the jury that Trump falsified records in service of another crime. They have argued that crime included illegal efforts to influence the 2016 election, which he ultimately won over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Trump is currently the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party in the 2024 presidential election. The New York trial is the result of one of four criminal indictments Trump currently faces. The other three have yet to proceed to trial.

No matter the outcome, the proceedings are historic: Trump is the first current or former US president to face criminal prosecution.

New witnesses take the stand

Tuesday marked the start of the second week of witness testimony, after the days-long testimony of former tabloid publisher David Pecker last week.

Pecker, formerly of the National Enquirer publication, said he entered into an agreement with Trump to be the “eyes and ears” of his 2016 presidential campaign. He also testified that he coordinated with Cohen to stifle negative stories about Trump ahead of the election.

Testimony continued on Tuesday with the return of banker Gary Farro, who helped set up the accounts through which the hush money was allegedly transferred.

He told the prosecution that he understood the accounts to be for a real estate transaction.

Farro also indicated he would not have set up the accounts had he known them to be for political purposes or paying off an adult film performer: “We might consider something like that a reputational risk.”

Then, three new witnesses took the stand. One, Robert Browning, is the archives director at CSPAN, a nonprofit television network providing uncut footage of government proceedings and other public events.

He was called as a “records custodian” to verify the authenticity of evidence. The prosecution proceeded to play CSPAN footage of Trump denying allegations of sexual misconduct and calling Cohen a good friend.

Another witness, Phillip Thompson, was likewise called to authenticate records: this time, court transcripts of from Trump’s civil defamation trials, brought by writer E Jean Carroll. She had accused Trump of attacking her reputation after she came forward to describe an alleged sexual assault he committed.

Daniels lawyer testifies

The third testimony, however, came from someone more intimately tied to the hush money case.

Keith Davidson was a lawyer for Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal at the time of the alleged hush money payments. Like Daniels, McDougal claimed she and Trump had an affair — something which the former president also denies.

Prosecutors asked Davidson to review text messages, projected on screen, that he exchanged with the publishers of the National Enquirer.

In one text, Davidson offered to sell McDougal’s story to the Enquirer. An editor there responded, “I will get you more than ANYONE for it. You know why.”

Davidson also described being asked to contact Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, directly during his negotiations with the publisher. “I thought it was odd, certainly,” Davidson told the court.

He acknowledged that one possible explanation for the dealings was that there “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”.

Davidson also described the negotiations for the Enquirer to purchase the rights to Daniels’s story, too — and how intimately involved Cohen was in the process.

“In essence, Michael Cohen stepped into AMI’s shoes,” Davidson said, referring to an acronym for American Media Inc, the Enquirer’s parent company at the time.

The lawyer, however, expressed distaste for working with Cohen, whom he described as a difficult person.

“Every single time I talked to Michael Cohen, he leaned on his close affiliation with Donald Trump,” Davidson said. “It was part of his identity. He let me know it at every opportunity he could that he was working for Donald Trump.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies