Hearing in Trump hush money case will determine if Trump is held in contempt

Written by on April 23, 2024

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media at Manhattan criminal court in New York, U.S., on Monday, April 22, 2024. (Victor J. Blue/The Washington Post/ Bloomberg)

(NEW YORK) — Lawyers for the Manhattan district attorney, in a hearing Tuesday morning, will attempt to convince the judge overseeing Donald Trump’s criminal hush money case to hold the former president in contempt for repeatedly violating the limited gag order in the case.

Prosecutors have argued that Trump violated the limited gag order — which prohibits statements about witnesses, jurors and lawyers in the case other than Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg — on at least 10 separate occasions this month. They asked Judge Juan Merchan hold Trump in contempt of court and fine Trump $10,000.

“The defendant has demonstrated his willingness to flout the order. He has attacked witnesses in the case in the past,” prosecutor Christopher Conroy told Merchan last week. “We’re asking the court to remind the defendant that further violations of the court’s order could result in jail time.”

The former president is on trial in New York on felony charges of falsifying business records to hide the reimbursement of a hush money payment his then-attorney Michael Cohen made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels in order to boost his electoral prospects in the 2016 presidential election.

Prosecutors highlighted seven instances this month in which Trump made a social media post mentioning likely witnesses Cohen or Daniels, two instances when his campaign website reposted information about Cohen, and one instance where Trump suggested that “undercover liberal activists” are trying to infiltrate the case’s jury.

Five of the ten alleged violations are instances when Trump or his campaign reposted an article in the New York Post that suggested the case relied on the testimony of “serial perjurer” Michael Cohen.

“We think that it is important for the court to remind Mr. Trump that he is a criminal defendant, and like all criminal defendants, he is subject to court supervision and, in particular, this court’s obligation to preserve the integrity of the Criminal Justice System,” Conroy said.

Last Monday, prosecutors initially requested a $3,000 fine and contempt finding after flagging three social media posts by Trump. By Thursday, prosecutors identified seven additional violations, including some which Trump appeared to post from within the courthouse during his trial.

“It’s ridiculous. It has to stop,” Conroy said.

While prosecutors said that they plan to request financial penalties at Tuesday’s hearing, they left the door open for stiffer penalties — including possible jail time — if Trump continues to willfully violate the order.

Trump’s lawyers have argued that prosecutors have not proven the posts were willful violations of the gag order, telling Merchan that the former president was defending himself from attacks by the likely witnesses.

“It’s not as if President Trump is going out and targeting individuals,” defense attorney Todd Blanche said last week. “He’s responding to salacious, repeated attacks by these witnesses.”

Defense lawyers also argued that the gag order — which prohibits Trump from making public statements about likely witnesses related their participation in the case — is vague and allows Trump to make “political” statements. He also argued that at least four of the alleged violations should be tossed since they are reposts of the same statement.

“The Gag Order did not prohibit President Trump from responding to political attacks, and we submit that’s what he is doing in these posts,” defense attorney Emil Bove said last week.

Trump has been subject to two other gag orders in his legal cases, including a limited gag order in his New York civil fraud case that he violated on two occasions and a separate gag order imposed by the judge overseeing his federal election interference case. In both cases, appeals courts have affirmed the constitutionality of the gag orders.

In recent weeks, Trump has compared himself to Nelson Mandela when discussing violations of the limited gag order in his New York criminal case, raising the stakes of Tuesday’s hearing where prosecutors hope to curtail Trump’s attacks on witnesses.

“If this Partisan Hack wants to put me in the ‘clink’ for speaking the open and obvious TRUTH, I will gladly become a Modern Day Nelson Mandela — It will be my GREAT HONOR,” Trump said in a social media post earlier this month.

The hearing also comes amid rising stakes in the criminal trial, as jurors hear testimony from the first witness called by the Manhattan district attorney. Prosecutors have argued that some of Trump’s posts about Cohen and Daniels may be “interpreted as an effort to intimidate potential witnesses.”

Trump was also reprimanded by Merchan during jury selection last week for audible “muttering” while a prospective juror was speaking, which Merchan interpreted as intimidating.

“He was speaking in the direction of the juror. I will not tolerate that. I will not have any jurors intimidated in this courtroom. I want to make that crystal clear,” said Judge Merchan.

The looming contempt hearing does not appear to have fazed Trump, who continued his attack on Cohen during remarks at the conclusion of Monday’s proceedings.

“When are they going to look at all the lies that Cohen did at the last trial? He got caught lying in the last trial. He got caught lying — pure lying,” Trump said.

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