US: Judge fines Trump again in criminal trial, warns of jail time

The former president was fined for the 10th time over violating an order that bars him from making comments about jurors, witnesses and families of the judge

By Reuters

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks with his attorney Todd Blanche, as his criminal trial over charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 continues, at Manhattan state court in New York City. — Photo: Reuters
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks with his attorney Todd Blanche, as his criminal trial over charges that he falsified business records to conceal money paid to silence porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 continues, at Manhattan state court in New York City. — Photo: Reuters

Published: Mon 6 May 2024, 7:54 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 May 2024, 8:31 PM

The judge in Donald Trump's criminal trial fined him $1,000 and held him in contempt of court for a 10th time for violating a gag order, while warning any further violations could land the former president in jail.

Justice Juan Merchan said the nine $1,000 fines he had imposed so far did not seem to be deterring the wealthy business mogul from violating the order, which bars him from making public comments about jurors, witnesses and families of the judge and prosecutors if the statements are meant to interfere with the case.


Merchan said he considered jail time “truly the last resort” for many reasons, including the disruption to the trial, political implications of jailing a leading presidential candidate ahead of an election and the extraordinary security challenges of incarcerating an ex-president with a lifetime Secret Service detail.

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But he said Trump’s “continued, willful” violations of the gag order amounted to a “direct attack on the rule of law.”

“I do not want to impose a jail sanction and have done everything I can to avoid doing so. But I will if necessary,” Merchan said from the bench in the absence of the jury.

New York law allows fines of up to $1,000 or jail time of up to 30 days for violating a court-imposed gag order.

Merchan imposed a $1,000 fine on Monday for an April 22 broadcast interview in which the Republican former president said: "That jury was picked so fast - 95 per cent Democrats. The area's mostly all Democrat."

He found that other statements flagged by prosecutors that mentioned witnesses Michael Cohen and David Pecker did not violate the order.

Last week Merchan fined Trump $9,000 for nine social media posts that he ruled had violated the gag order.

Merchan spoke while Trump sat at the defendant's table in the New York courtroom in the first criminal trial of a former US president.

Trump's criminal hush money trial, now in its 12th day, has featured testimony from a top aide and a former tabloid publisher about efforts during his first presidential bid to tamp down stories of unflattering sexual behaviour.

New York prosecutors have charged Trump with falsifying business records to cover up a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels, who claims to have had a sexual encounter with him in 2006. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denies ever having sex with Daniels.

Trump complains frequently that the gag order limits his ability to make his case to voters for a comeback White House bid.

Speaking to reporters before Monday's session, Trump declined to comment about Cohen, his former lawyer who is expected to be a prominent witness in the trial.

However, he repeated unsupported claims that New York prosecutors are working with President Joe Biden, a Democrat, to hobble his political prospects and said Merchan faces a conflict of interest because his daughter has done work for Democratic politicians. Trump's lawyers have unsuccessfully tried to remove Merchan from the case.

"The judge has gagged me and I'm not allowed to talk about, I guess, his total conflict," Trump told reporters outside the courtroom. "He's taken away my constitutional right to speak."

The trial then resumed with testimony from Jeffrey McConney, a former Trump Organization finance official who testified that Trump was a frugal businessman who negotiated nearly every transaction to the penny.

McConney's testimony could bolster aspects of the prosecutors' case that focus on the business records that they say were illegally falsified to cover up the payment to Daniels.

Prosecutors say Trump's payment to Daniels corrupted the 2016 election by keeping the news from voters, at a time when his treatment of women was a central issue in his campaign against Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

They say the altered business records covered up election-law and tax-law violations that elevate the 34 counts Trump faces from misdemeanors to felonies punishable by up to four years in prison.

The main players in the case have yet to testify, including Daniels and Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen, who handled the payment to Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford.

Last week the 12 jurors and six alternates who will decide Trump's guilt or innocence heard testimony from Hope Hicks, his former longtime aide who described frantic efforts to respond to stories of alleged affairs and sexual harassment that cropped up in the waning weeks of the 2016 campaign.

The case features sordid allegations of adultery and secret payoffs, but it is widely seen as less consequential than three other criminal prosecutions Trump faces. It is the only one certain to go to trial before the Nov. 5 presidential election.

The other cases charge him with trying to overturn his 2020 presidential defeat and mishandling classified documents after leaving office. Trump has pleaded not guilty to all three.

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