NATIONAL NEWS

Judge issues gag order barring Donald Trump from commenting on witnesses, others in hush money case

Mar 26, 2024, 11:58 AM | Updated: 3:20 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — A New York judge Tuesday issued a gag order barring Donald Trump from commenting publicly about witnesses, prosecutors, court staff and jurors in his upcoming hush-money criminal trial, citing the former president’s history of “threatening, inflammatory, denigrating” remarks about people involved in his legal cases.

Judge Juan M. Merchan’s decision, echoing a gag order in Trump’s Washington, D.C., election interference criminal case, came a day after he rejected the defense’s push to delay the Manhattan trial until summer and ordered it to begin April 15. If the date holds, it will be the first criminal trial of a former president.

“Given that the eve of trial is upon us, it is without question that the imminency of the risk of harm is now paramount,” Merchan wrote in a four-page decision granting the prosecution’s request for what it deemed a “narrowly tailored” gag order.

The judge said the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s statements have induced fear and necessitated added security measures to protect his targets and investigate threats.

Trump’s lawyers fought a gag order, warning it would amount to unconstitutional and unlawful prior restraint on his free speech rights. Merchan, who had long resisted imposing a gag order, said his obligation to ensuring the integrity of the trial outweighed First Amendment concerns.

“President Trump’s political opponents have, and will continue to, attack him based on this case,” Trump lawyers Todd Blanche and Susan Necheles said in a recent court filing. “The voters have the right to listen to President Trump’s unfettered responses to those attacks — not just one side of that debate.”

The gag order bars Trump from either making or directing other people to make public statements on his behalf about potential witnesses and jurors in the hush-money trial. It also prohibits any statements meant to interfere with or harass the court’s staff, prosecution team or their families.

It does not bar comments about Merchan, whom Trump has referred to after his arraignment last year as “a Trump-hating judge” with a family full of “Trump haters,” or Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, an elected Democrat. But it puts Trump on notice that attacks on key figures in the case, like his former lawyer-turned-nemesis Michael Cohen or porn star Stormy Daniels, won’t be tolerated.

A violation could result in Trump being held in contempt of court, fined or even jailed.

“I want to thank Judge Merchan for imposing the gag order as I have been under relentless assault from Donald’s MAGA supporters,” said Cohen, a key prosecution witness against Trump. “Nevertheless, knowing Donald as well as I do, he will seek to defy the gag order by employing others within his circle to do his bidding, regardless of consequence.”

Blanche declined to comment. Bragg’s office also declined to comment. A message seeking comment was left for Trump’s presidential campaign.

The gag order adds to existing restrictions that prohibit Trump from using evidence in the case to attack witnesses.

Trump’s hush-money case centers on allegations that he falsely logged payments to Cohen, then his personal lawyer, as legal fees in his company’s books when they were for his work during the 2016 campaign covering up negative stories about Trump. That included $130,000 he had paid Daniels on Trump’s behalf so she wouldn’t publicize her claim of a sexual encounter with him years earlier.

Trump pleaded not guilty last April to 34 counts of falsifying business records, a felony punishable by up to four years in prison, though there is no guarantee that a conviction would result in jail time. He denies having sex with Daniels and his lawyers have said that the payments to Cohen were legitimate legal expenses, not part of any coverup.

At his arraignment, Merchan admonished Trump not to make statements that could incite violence or jeopardize safety, but stopped short of muzzling him. At a subsequent hearing, Merchan noted Trump’s “special” status as a former president and current candidate and said, “I’m bending over backwards and straining to make sure that he is given every opportunity possible to advance his candidacy and to be able to speak in furtherance of his candidacy.”

As jury selection nears, Merchan has been increasingly wary of Trump’s rhetoric disrupting the historic trial. Earlier this month, Merchan ruled to keep the names of jurors from the public. Trump will have access to them, but he risks forfeiting access if he discloses the names publicly or engages in harassing or disruptive conduct that threatens the safety or integrity of jurors, the judge said.

Now, with the gag order, Merchan is declaring scores of people involved in the case off-limits for Trump’s social media venom, courthouse diatribes and campaign rallies. Trump’s grousing to TV cameras as he entered and exited the courtroom became ritual during his New York civil fraud trial last year.

After leaving Monday’s hearing where Merchan set the trial date, Trump tore into prosecutor Matthew Colangelo at a press conference, referring to the ex-Justice Department official as a “radical left from DOJ” sent to run the Trump case “by Biden and his thugs.” The judge cited those remarks in his ruling.

Trump has repeatedly lashed out about the hush-money case. He warned on social media of “potential death & destruction” before his indictment last year and posting a photo on social media of himself holding a baseball bat next to a picture of Bragg. He has referred to Cohen as a “convicted felon, disbarred lawyer, with zero credibility” and has used a mocking nickname to describe Daniels.

Merchan is just the latest judge to put guardrails around Trump.

A federal appeals court panel in December largely upheld Trump’s gag order in his Washington, D.C., election interference case but narrowed it by freeing him to criticize special counsel Jack Smith, who brought the case. The New York gag order echoed that ruling by excluding Bragg.

At the fraud trial, Trump was fined $15,000 for twice violating a gag order imposed after he made a disparaging social media post about the judge’s chief law clerk.

In January, a federal judge threatened Trump with expulsion from court in a civil trial on writer E. Jean Carroll’s defamation claims against him after he was heard saying “it is a witch hunt” and “it really is a con job.”

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Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz, Jill Colvin and Eric Tucker contributed to this report.

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