Judge threatens to jail Trump if he continues to violate gag order

The warning comes after the former president was held in contempt for a tenth time

Former U.S. president Donald Trump awaits the start of this Monday's hearing in the criminal court of Manhattan (New York).Julia Nikhinson (via REUTERS)
Miguel Jiménez

Silencing Donald Trump is no easy matter, even less so with $1,000-fines. The former president of the United States has a multi-billion dollar fortune, so monetary fines for contempt have little effect on him. Trump has time and again disobeyed Judge Juan Merchan’s order that he not insult or question the parties involved in the criminal trial against him in New York. On Monday, after violating the gag order for the tenth time, the judge issued a blunt warning: if he continues to disobey his orders, he may send him to jail, even if it is “the last thing” he would want to do.

“Defendant is hereby put on notice that, if appropriate and justified, future violations of his lawful orders will be punishable by incarceration,” Merchan wrote in a five-page ruling.

In his resolution, Merchan recalls that contempt is punishable by a fine of no more than $1,000, imprisonment of no more than 30 days, or both penalties at the discretion of the court. “However, because this is now the tenth time that this Court has found Defendant in criminal contempt,” the ruling states, “it is apparent that monetary fines have not, and will not, suffice to deter Defendant from violating this Court’s lawful orders.”

During the hearing, Merchan issued the warning directly to Trump, who was sitting in the dock, and shook his head and crossed his arms in disapproval. “It appears that the $1,000 fines are not serving as a deterrent. Therefore, going forward, this court will have to consider a jail sanction,” Merchan said before jurors were brought into the courtroom, according to the Associated Press. Trump’s statements, the judge added, “threaten to interfere with the fair administration of justice and constitute a direct attack on the rule of law. I cannot allow that to continue.”

“Mr Trump, the last thing I want to do is put you in jail. You are the former president of the United States and possibly the next president,” Merchan said on Monday.

“The magnitude of this decision is not lost on me, but ultimately I have a job to do. So as much as I don’t want to impose any jail time, I want you to understand that I will do so when necessary and appropriate,” he continued, adding that part of his job is to “protect the dignity of the judicial system.”

The judge first warned Trump he could face imprisonment last week, when he imposed nine $1,000 fines on him for nine comments on social media that, in his opinion, violated his gag order that prohibits criticism of jurors, witnesses and judicial officials. Trump had to delete seven comments on his platform, Truth Social, and two on his campaign website.

On this occasion, prosecutors accused Trump of four new violations of Merchan’s gag order, but the ruling indicates that in only one case, was criminal contempt established “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In this case, the violation referred to statements Trump made about the jury and how it was selected. “In doing so, Defendant not only called into question the integrity, and therefore the legitimacy of these proceedings, but again raised the specter of fear for the safety of the jurors and of their loved ones,” the ruling states.

In an interview on April 22 with the television channel Real America’s Voice, Trump criticized the speed with which the jury was chosen and claimed that it was full of Democrats. “That jury was picked so fast — 95% democrats. The area’s mostly all Democrat. You think of it as just a purely Democrat area. It’s a very unfair situation that I can tell you,” he said.

Trump is charged with 34 counts of falsifying business records in connection with payments made to cover up potentially embarrassing stories. Prosecutors say Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, reimbursed Michael Cohen, the former president’s former lawyer, for hush money paid to porn actress Stormy Daniels and gave Cohen bonuses and additional payments. Prosecutors allege those transactions were falsely recorded in company records as legal expenses.

Cohen, who pleaded guilty to crimes related to the payments, is now the prosecution’s star witness as the trial enters its third week. It also remains to be seen if Trump himself, who maintains that he is innocent, will testify, as he has assured that he would do.

Among the witnesses who have testified so far are a tabloid magazine editor and friend of Trump, who bought the rights to several sordid stories about the then-presidential candidate to prevent them from coming to light. A Los Angeles lawyer who negotiated deals to silence both Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal also took the stand.

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