Judge reprimands Trump lawyer but holds off on gag order ruling

<span>Donald Trump with his lawyer Todd Blanche outside court on Tuesday.</span><span>Photograph: Brendan McDermid/AP</span>
Donald Trump with his lawyer Todd Blanche outside court on Tuesday.Photograph: Brendan McDermid/AP

The New York judge presiding in Donald Trump’s criminal trial held off on deciding whether he should be fined $10,000 for attacking expected trial witnesses in direct violation of the gag order designed to protect trial participants from being the target of Trump’s abuse.

The judge, Juan Merchan, reserved ruling from the bench. But he appeared deeply unconvinced by arguments from Trump’s lead lawyer Todd Blanche that a series of social media posts were just responses to political attacks on Trump and therefore permitted.

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“Mr Blanche, you’re losing all credibility, I have to tell you right now,” the judge said at one stage. “You’re losing all credibility with the court. Is there any other argument you want to make?”

The admonishment from Merchan, a major rebuke particularly in the midst of a criminal trial, underscores Blanche’s difficulty in trying to explain away 10 posts that prosecutors in the office of the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, alleged were in violation of the gag order.

Although prosecutors told the judge they were not seeking to have Trump jailed for allegedly violating the gag order, they asked that Trump be held in contempt and fined the maximum $1,000 fine for each of 10 offending posts.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office also told the judge they intended to file a further motion alleging that Trump again violated the gag order in the hallway outside the courtroom when he told news cameras that his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen was a serial perjurer.

For weeks, Trump has railed against the 34-count indictment that charges him with falsifying business records to cover up hush-money payments he made to the porn star Stormy Daniels to protect his 2016 presidential campaign from negative headlines in violation of campaign finance laws.

The aggrievement has been particularly focused on Cohen, who facilitated the hush-money payments to Daniels, as well as Daniels herself. Both are expected to testify against Trump at trial, and are covered by the gag order.

Trump’s lawyer Blanche claimed at a hearing on Tuesday that the majority of the posts were responses to ad hominem or political attacks against Trump, while others were reposts of links to New York Post articles or views expressed by others, including the prominent Fox News host Jesse Watters.

But the judge appeared deeply skeptical of those arguments, questioning why in one post, Trump waited until after a challenge against the gag order was rejected by a New York appeals court to “respond” to a jibe from Cohen, instead of replying immediately.

The judge also invited Blanche to present examples of cases where reposts were ruled to be any different from posts authored by a defendant, and to provide the specific political attack against Trump. “Give me one. Give me one recent attack he was responding to,” Merchan said.

Blanche suggested that one particular post referencing Cohen was definitely political in nature because there was a mention of Trump granting a presidential pardon. Merchan was unimpressed: Blanche would have to do better than pointing to just one word, the judge said.

The contempt hearing ended particularly poorly for Trump when the judge interrupted Blanche to clarify that it was wrong to characterize one post as just reposting Watters’ quote from television. Trump “manipulated” the quote by making his own additions, and then put quote marks around it, Merchan said.

The scope of the gag order against Trump was expanded earlier this month, after Merchan rebuked Trump for making statements about the case he deemed “threatening, inflammatory, denigrating” ahead of the trial in New York supreme court.

Under the order, Trump cannot make, or direct others to make, public statements about trial witnesses concerning their roles in the investigation and at trial, prosecutors other than Bragg himself, and members of the court staff or the district attorney’s staff.